By BRYAN GASKINS
Kokomo basketball standout Tayler Persons played with a sense of purpose Saturday following the death of his grandfather Eric Donelson a day earlier.
Persons posted a double-double of 21 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Class 4A No. 8-ranked Wildkats to a 67-26 rout of Western in the Coca-Cola Old School Sectional championship game at Memorial Gym.
The 6-foot-2 junior guard also had a strong performance against Taylor in a semifinal game Saturday morning. He scored a game-high 18 points, including 14 in the opening quarter, to lead the Kats to a 56-17 win.
“I wanted to go out and play really good for my grandpa,” Persons said. “He is a great man, I look up to him so much, I love him so much. He just told me to always have heart in the games and to come out focused and that is what I did.
“I just want to give a shoutout to everyone who has told me about my grandpa, told me they’re praying for me. I appreciate it and my family appreciates it.”
The Wildkats repeated as tournament champions. Persons was named the MVP.
“I am so happy to get this win,” he said, noting the play of his teammates. “Back-to-back champions in this is a big thing.”
In the final, Persons made 9 of 13 shots from the field, including 1 of 3 from 3-point range. He also had three assists and two steals.
“Tayler was so focused,” Kokomo coach Brian McCauley said. “He is a great team player and he is a winner. I’m glad he is a Kokomo Wildkat.”
The Kats (9-0) received several other strong contributions in the final. Swingman LaBradford Sebree had 12 points and two assists, post Kylee Beheler had five points, nine rebounds and three steals, guard Mykal Cox had five points, four assists and three steals, forward Brad Dockemeyer had five points, four boards and three assists and forward Erik Bowen had seven points.
“I can’t say enough about our group effort,” McCauley said. “It’s a fun group. They’re deserving of this and hopefully we can keep building on this.”
Kokomo smothered Western (6-3) with a relentless defensive effort. The Kats held the Panthers to 11-of-42 shooting from the field and forced the Panthers into 16 turnovers. The Kats racked up a 21-0 advantage in points off turnovers — including 17-0 in the first half.
Earlier Saturday, the Kats held Taylor to 6-of-26 shooting, forced 28 turnovers and compiled a 31-6 advantage in points off turnovers.
“Our team defense [Saturday] was just phenomenal,” McCauley said. “I’m really proud of the guys’ effort, awareness and intensity and their willingness to be coached.”
Western — which had to survive a triple-OT game against Northwestern in the afternoon semifinal — went from cold to frigid against Kokomo. The Panthers shot 37.5 percent from the field in the first half, then just 19.2 percent in the second half.
“I’m very proud of guys for fighting through that triple-overtime game. I think fatigue did have a little bit to do with our performance [vs. Kokomo], but by no means is that the main reason for our performance. Unfortunately, we came up against a better team [Saturday] evening,” Western coach Bart Miller said.
“Turnovers and rebounding were really big. We just couldn’t buy a bucket. I think that is where the fatigue really set in for us. We short-armed a lot of shots. Give Kokomo credit — they came out ready to play.”
Kokomo jumped to a 7-0 lead. Western closed to within two at 9-7, but the Kats followed with an 18-2 run to take control on their way to a 29-15 halftime lead. At that point, Western had 11 turnovers and Kokomo had just one.
The Kats opened the second half with a 10-2 run to remove any suspense. They were up 49-23 at the close of the third quarter, then outscored the Panthers 18-3 in the final quarter to win going away. They extended their home winning streak to 21 games.
Post Ronnie Smith offered a bright spot for Western, finishing with 12 points and seven rebounds.
Kokomo has beaten Western seven straight times, including twice this season. The Kats beat the Panthers 52-30 in both teams’ season opener.