By Pedro Velazco and Josh Sigler
The back end of coach Andy Weaver’s tenure as the boys basketball coach at Western High School included three Mid-Indiana Conference championships in the final four years.
Although there’s still plenty to sort out, the Panthers appear to be on a similar track in Bart Miller’s first season at the helm.
Western enters tonight’s MIC contest at Maconaquah at 8-4 overall, and more importantly, as the only 3-0 team in the conference. With that in mind, the Panthers are well aware of the magnitude of tonight’s showdown in Bunker Hill.
“Any conference game is huge, especially when you go in without any losses,” Miller said. “To be able to control your own destiny is huge in this conference. It’s a very competitive conference, and just to be able to stay unbeaten is big. That makes this game really big for us
“Both teams are really hungry for a conference championship, and that begins with a victory [tonight].”
While Peru is 2-0 in MIC play (5-6 overall), Maconaquah (7-4, 2-1 MIC) would pull even with Western in both the won and lost columns in league play with a win over the Panthers tonight.
“This is a must win for us with Western at 3-0 in the conference,” said Maconaquah coach Andy Steele, also in his first season leading the Braves. “We can’t go 2-2 in the conference. We need to get to 3-1 – I think that would be a great motivator for us for the rest of the season.”
From a personnel standpoint, this matchup is intriguing. Maconaquah boasts one of the area’s best big men in 6-foot-10 center Micah Pier, who ranks fourth in the area in scoring (17.1 ppg), leads the area in free throw percentage (95.0) and is second in blocked shots (18 total).
“He’s big and he can also step out and knock down some outside jumpers,” Miller said of Pier. “Being able to contain him will be big. Their dribble penetration seems to give other teams trouble, so we’re concentrating on shutting them down inside and taking away the dribble penetration from them.”
Western will look to combat Pier with 6-7 senior Ronnie Smith, who averages 10.5 points and 7.2 rebounds per outing.
“I think the Smith kid is extremely athletic,” Steele said. “[Micah] has to work to get as close to the rim as he can against him. They have outstanding guards who can shoot the 3 but can also take you off the dribble. So, we have to play just solid defense. We have to get a hand in their shooters’ faces and limit offensive rebounds.”
Junior guard Evan Warden leads Western’s offensive attack with 13.8 ppg, while backcourt running mate Des Balentine adds a 12.4 ppg clip to the fray.
Junior forward K.J. Walton adds 9.8 ppg for the Braves, while senior Tyler Bradley adds 8.1 ppg.
• Western faces Tri-Central Saturday night in Sharpsville. The Panthers have beaten the Trojans seven straight times.
Northwestern (4-5, 1-2 MIC) at Cass (6-4, 1-1 MIC)
The Purple Tigers have barely played since the holiday break. A loss to Frankfort on Jan. 8 was their only action since the Coca-Cola Old School Sectional wrapped up three days before Christmas. They’ve lost three straight, starting with a gut-wrenching triple-OT loss against Western in the Old School, but haven’t had much court time to get back on the winning track.
Meanwhile, Cass got on a roll, beating Taylor and Rochester before the holiday break, then Tri-Central and Pioneer after it before their four-game happy streak was snapped by an eight-point loss at Logansport last Saturday.
Northwestern coach Jim Gish has noticed the improvement on the Cass side.
“They obviously have pretty much the same personnel [as last season], there’s just not a lot of substitution for experience,” Gish said. “They’ve been battle tested, going through varsity seasons now, and they’ve been playing together a few years now. With their experience and athleticism and basketball savvy, they’ve really gotten to be a nice club.”
Point guard Austin Keisling leads the Kings, averaging 14.7 points per game, while backcourt partner Blake Hadley (10.5 ppg), forward Ryan Aldridge (10.4) and forward Jordan Miller (9.8) give good balance and help spread defenses out.
“They have a very nice offensive weapons in Keisling, and Aldridge and Hadley,” Gish said. “They have a really nice duo guard play, Hadley and Keisling, they have the ability to knock down shots. They make very few mistakes, they’re very strong with the ball and make good decisions. Aldridge inside, he’s a handful, he’s very strong and athletic, [as is] Miller inside as well. Miller’s kind of inside-outside.”
The Purple Tigers are led by guard/forward combo player Trenton Brazel (22.2 ppg) and post Chase Johnson (10.2 ppg, and an area-best 9.9 rebounds per game). But Gish said the Tigers need more contributions on the glass if they’re to win because that was a weak spot in recent losses.
“It comes down to rebounding, for us [that] is always a big key,” Gish said. “We got outrebounded by Western and Frankfort. We got outrebounded by Frankfort by a large margin and if that happens [tonight] we will not put ourselves in position to win.”
• Cass hosts Delphi (9-2) on Saturday.
Taylor (3-9, 1-3 MIC)
at Peru (5-6, 2-0 MIC)
The Titans enter the contest on an upswing after beating Eastern last week, and finding more offensive options.
Guard Challen Hodson leads the Titans in scoring at 10.6 ppg, followed by forward Nick Hoover (7.7) and Nate Gotshall (7.4). However, in the Eastern game, guard Logan Barnes led the squad with 14 points, and in the previous outing, a narrow loss to Mississinewa, reserve forward Latrell Mitchell scored 18.
Peru will try to protect its unbeaten start in conference play and enters on a two-game happy streak with wins over Oak Hill and Maconaquah.
Sophomore wing Logan Primerano has shown himself to be a handful, leading the Bengal Tigers in scoring (16.2 ppg) and averaging 6.6 rebounds. Post player Joe Comerford leads the squad with 7.6 rpg and adds 12.2 ppg.
• Taylor visits Clinton Central on Saturday.
Eastern (3-8, 0-4 MIC) at Hamilton Hts. (6-4, 2-1 MIC)
Eastern tries to halt a three-game skid and get its first conference victory when it visits Heights. Forward Josiah Marx leads the Comets in scoring at 16.1 ppg, followed by guard Braden Gibson at 12.7.
The Comets host Northfield on Saturday. The Norse are 7-5 heading into today’s game at Whitko.
at Tipton (12-1), Saturday
The Class 4A No. 8-ranked Wildkats are eager to get back to business after suffering their first loss of the season at Carmel last Saturday, 54-46.
“Any team, when you lose, is anxious to get back out on the court and get things corrected and try to make improvements from your last game,” Kokomo coach Brian McCauley said. “So, we tried to really emphasize the concepts we need to get better at this week in practice. Hopefully we can get those corrected and keep taking steps forward.”
The Kats head to Tipton to face the 2A No. 3 Blue Devils (12-1) Saturday, a place where Kokomo hasn’t lost since the 1982-83 season.
Tipton is led by senior guard/forward Mike Crawford, a Saint Louis University recruit who leads the area in scoring at 27.8 ppg. Crawford, who became the program’s all-time leading scorer in last Saturday’s win over Twin Lakes, also ranks third in the are in rebounding 9.2 per game.
Fellow senior Blake Hoover adds 11.8 ppg for Tipton.
“Crawford is an outstanding player, but first and foremost, Tipton is an outstanding basketball team,” McCauley said. “They play a tremendous schedule. They played really well in the Bob Wettig Tournament in Richmond over the holidays. … Crawford is an Indiana All-Star candidate, and rightfully so. He can shoot. He gets to the free throw line. He rebounds. If I had a game where I had 28 points and nine rebounds, I might’ve called it a career. He averages that. That tells you what caliber of player he is.”
Junior guard Tayler Persons leads Kokomo with a 17.8 ppg clip, which ranks third in the area. Senior LaBradford Sebree adds 15.5 ppg
Around the area
Tri-Central (4-8, 1-1 HHC) visits Carroll (6-5, 0-1 HHC) in Hoosier Heartland Conference play. The game is a rematch of their tussle in the final of the Clinton Central Holiday Tournament, where the Cougars claimed a 39-34 victory for the hardware. Another HHC contest sees Clinton Central (1-9, 1-1 HHC) visit league leader Rossville (7-5, 3-0 HHC).
Tipton (5-0 HC) can wrap its sixth straight Hoosier Conference championship with a win at Benton Central (2-9, 0-4). All the other HC squads have at least one loss.
On Saturday, Carroll hosts Pioneer. The Panthers are 8-3 heading into tonight’s date with West Central.