By Bryan Gaskins
Tribune sports editor
— Class 3A No. 2-ranked Western led wire to wire in beating Kokomo 40-21 in a girls basketball game Tuesday night at Memorial Gym.
The 50th all-time meeting in the rivalry series turned into a Western party. Consider:
• The Panthers earned their first road win in the series since December 1987.
• They beat the Lady Kats for the second straight year and the third time in four years, their best run of success in the series since taking three of four over the 1987-88 and 1988-89 seasons.
• They held Kokomo to its fewest points in a game in its 40-year history. Kokomo’s previous low was 23 on two occasions, against Logansport in 1983-84 and against Carmel in 2010-11.
• And one last highlight for the Panthers — they improved to 7-0 for the first time since the 1996-97 Western squad opened 7-0 en route to a 17-3 record.
“A lot of good things for this bunch,” Western coach Chris Keisling said.
Keisling credited his seniors for setting the tone in the unbeaten start. He noted every squad has to handle small bumps in the road such as injuries, illnesses and off nights. Western, with an all-senior starting lineup, has enjoyed a smooth ride to this point.
“The adversity becomes smaller and smaller when you have a good group like this because they’re able to battle through it. They’ve been there and done that,” he said.
Keisling’s crew had to overcome a sluggish second quarter against Kokomo. The Panthers jumped to a 5-0 lead and went on for a 9-4 lead at the close of the opening quarter. They had a 12-4 advantage early in the second quarter when they went into an extended scoreless stretch.
Kokomo (4-2) closed to within one on a pair of occasions, 12-11 and 14-13, the latter coming with 5:19 left in the half. The Kats had several chances to take the lead over the next four minutes, but repeatedly came up empty and the Panthers regained control by outscoring the Kats 8-2 over the final 1:19 for a 22-15 halftime lead. Jessica Givens sparked the run with a driving layup and a 3-pointer. Kiersten Durbin added a hoop-and-harm 3-point play off a steal.
“A big spurt there at the end of the second quarter,” Kokomo coach Jason Snyder lamented. “It was 14-13 Western and we had four possessions where we had the opportunity to go up and we had a few turnovers and missed shots. And then in the last minute and a half, they made a six-point run. That was a huge part of the game because they were able to come out in the second half and extend the floor.”
Indeed, Western pulled the ball out in the third quarter in an effort to pull Kokomo from its zone. The Panthers took more than four minutes off the clock before the Kats came out and the Panthers attempted a shot. Western missed, but it had control at that point and it went on to outscore Kokomo 7-1 over the final 1:29 of the quarter. Givens hit another 3-pointer and Caitlyn O’Neal added a pair of driving baskets for a 29-16 lead.
Snyder noted he was reluctant to scramble his defense in part because of the Panthers’ guard-heavy attack.
“We had minor foul trouble. If we had to extend out with them for the entire second half, they would have taken advantage of that foul trouble and we’d have to give up some open looks to try to get the ball back. That happened some in the fourth quarter,” he said. “It’s a very good team that has great senior leadership. They play well together.”
Western outscored Kokomo 11-5 in the fourth quarter for the 40-21 final.
Western showed good balance. Caitlyn O’Neal scored a game-high 12 points, Carley O’Neal followed with 11, Givens had eight and Durbin had seven.
Givens had an efficient night, making 3 of 5 shots from the field including 2 of 3 from 3-land. She also grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds.
“Jessica was phenomenal seemingly in every phase of the game — handling the ball out front, rebounding the ball, shooting the ball well,” Keisling said. “She was making all the big plays when we needed them.”
Raven Black added four rebounds, three steals and two blocked shots for Western.
Schnetavia Williams led Kokomo with six points.
The Kats shot 25 percent from the field (8 of 32). They made just 1 of 13 attempts from 3-land. They turned the ball over 20 times, six more times than the Panthers.
“We had some looks that we missed, but a lot of them were outside looks. When we got to the basket, [the Panthers] did a nice job. They had a couple blocked shots early in the game and it kept us from attacking,” Snyder said. “We had a few too many turnovers and that is something we’ll continue to work on against that type of pressure defense. We’ve handled that well all year and we’ll handle it again. I think some of it wasn’t even being pressured, it was just going a little too fast.”