BY PEDRO VELAZCO and JOSH SIGLER KOKOMO TRIBUNE
---- — Welcome back old friend. It’s nice to see you again.
The Howard County Boys Basketball Tournament returns to the hardwood tonight at Taylor following a two-year hiatus where the four county schools joined Kokomo and Maconaquah in the Old School Sectional.
Now, the county tourney is back and players are eager to stir up local rivalries.
“We’re excited. The county tourney’s just a great atmosphere with the four county schools,” Western coach Bart Miller said. “The four county schools, we’ve always had a rivalry, all four of us against each other. The county players all look forward to winning that county tourney.”
It’s also nice to have teams gathered together.
“There’s some nice rivalries, but it’s also nice to be in the same gym and see each other play,” Northwestern coach Jim Gish said.
The tournament tips at 6 p.m. with Eastern taking on host school Taylor. Following that, Western and Northwestern clash at approximately 7:45. The tourney concludes on Saturday with the consolation at 6 p.m. and the championship at 7:45.
EASTERN (1-5) at TAYLOR (2-5)
The Comets and Titans will renew their rivalry at Center Court in the first game of the tourney.
Taylor has won three of the four matchups in the series under coach Andy Lewman, who is now in his third season leading the Titans.
Taylor is coming off of a 60-50 loss at Mississinewa last weekend, while Eastern will be seeing its first action of 2014, not having taken the court for game action since a 78-43 thrashing of Clinton Central on Dec. 21, the Comets first win of the season.
Lewman sees Eastern’s layoff as a potentially-major advantage for the Comets.
“They’re going to want to try and dictate tempo, and we’re going to have to try to make sure we can adjust and play the way we want to play,” Lewman said. “There’s always the possibility that they’re going to be a bit more fresh because we played a game after only getting a couple voluntary days in last week before coming in this week and trying to get our legs again as school started. That’s always a challenge. Trying to be as fresh we can going down the stretch [tonight] is going to be a big part of it.
Taylor is led by senior guard Calvin Wheeler’s 13.7 points-per-game average, while senior post Latrell Mitchell adds 11.7 points and a team-high 7.5 rebounds per game. Sophomores Darian Stone (8.5 ppg) and Cole Schroeder (7 ppg) have given the Titans a youthful scoring lift, as well.
Eastern coach Mike Springer will be experiencing his first county tourney as a boys coach. He was the Comets’ girls coach for five seasons from 2003-04 to ‘07-08.
Guard Braden Gibson, the Comets’ lone senior, leads the squad with 13.5 ppg. Sophomore forward Jacob Kinder adds 11 ppg and team-high 6.5 rebounds per game, and junior wing Noah Cope contributes 8 ppg.
WESTERN (4-3) VS. NORTHWESTERN (3-3)
The second semifinal will be the second meeting between the teams this season. Western topped Northwestern 57-48 on Dec. 6 at Western.
The Tigers started the season with three losses but have bounced back.
“They’ve evened up their record [with] three quality wins,” Miller said of Northwestern, noting two of the wins came against Mid-Indiana Conference foes and the other against sectional rival Twin Lakes. “They’re playing well right now. We need to be ready for anything. They play all sorts of defenses. They press you, they’ll get back on D. Offensively they move the ball really well. You can’t key on one guy. They’re playing very good team basketball.”
Miller said Northwestern’s offense, defense and rebounding have gotten better. The Tigers are led by wing shooter Graham Ortmann, who is averaging 14 ppg. He had 22 against Western on Dec. 6.
Western is led by driving guards Des Balentine (19.4 ppg) and Evan Warden (12.4).
“If possible, [the Panthers] are hitting even more shots now,” Gish said. “They have an excellent shooting team They do a very good job of driving the ball, kicking the ball, and with players like Balentine and Warden, when the ball is in their hands they draw so much attention it allows other good shooters on their team to spot up.
“We definitely have to work extremely hard to keep those two guys in front of us. We have to do a much better job on the glass than we did the first time. That’s something we’ve really put a lot of focus on.”
The Panthers want to keep Ortmann from stinging them, but without giving up open looks to other Tigers.
“We have to take care of the ball, No. 1, and we have to be able to defend them,” Miller said. “They move the ball and the people around them really well.”
NEW CASTLE (4-5) at KOKOMO (4-5)
The Trojans will visit Memorial Gym to take on the Wildkats for the 100th time in the series. The teams have played at least once every season since their first encounter in 1926, when both schools were charter members of the North Central Conference.
For the first time in 87 years, however, the squads will clash as non-conference opponents after New Castle announced in June it was leaving the NCC, although the two have met up in games during in-season tournaments and postseason tournaments 12 times with no conference implications on the line. Kokomo is shooting for a seventh straight win in the series, which would be the longest streak in series history.
The Trojans, who are under the direction of first-year coach Daniel Cox, enter tonight having lost four in a row, although three of those losses are by a combined nine points.
Cox is New Castle product who played at Taylor University and most recently served as an assistant in the Carmel boys program.
Led by junior guard Abe Haler’s 15.2 ppg and sophomore guard Andrew Garrett’s 11.1 ppg, the Trojans shoot 45 percent from 3 as a team (68 for 151) and have five players who shot over 40 percent from 3.
McCauley sees a lot of Carmel, Taylor University and New Castle in Cox’s style.
“They’ve been in every game and have been very competitive,” McCauley said. “It’s going to be extremely challenging for us. They’re very intelligent. They run a great continuity offense, a triangle offense, where they read and react very well. They’re outstanding shooters. A lot of teams don’t have one player who shoots over 40 percent from 3, and they have five. They’re very blue-collar and patient offensively.”
Senior post Erik Bowen leads the Kats at 15.3 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. Senior guard Mykal Cox has added 12.7 points and 5.4 assists per outing, and senior forward Demarius Warren chips in 8.7 ppg.
• Kokomo hosts 4A No. 1-ranked Carmel (8-1) Saturday night. The Greyhounds suffered their first loss of the season Wednesday in a 45-41 setback at 4A No. 10 Indianapolis Cathedral.
Carmel has won back-to-back state championships in 4A, topping Kokomo in the regional round both times. The Greyhounds are led by senior post Zach McRoberts, a University of Vermont recruit, as well as guards Ryan Cline and Michael Bruns.
“They’re just so, so smart,” McCauley said of Carmel. “They understand the game of basketball very very well. They don’t make mistakes. They’re very athletic and are all strong and have good size. You couple that with a very high basketball I.Q. and they’re just a very tremendous team. They’re exactly what every coach would want from a team aspect. They play great team defense, and rarely do they ever get out of position. And, they’re very, very efficient offensively.”
AROUND THE AREA
In a big Mid-Indiana Conference game tonight, Peru (4-5, 1-0 MIC) visits Maconaquah (3-3, 0-1 MIC) in a rematch of their barn burner in the Miami County Tournament on Dec. 28. In that game, Peru edged Mac 58-56 with a bucket and free throw by Eddie Childers in the final seconds.
In other games: Pioneer (1-7) visits Cass (5-2) in a rematch of a Cass County tourney game won by Cass on Dec. 6; Tri-Central (4-4, 1-1 HHC) visits Rossville (6-3, 2-0) in a league matchup; Tipton (5-2) visits Sheridan (3-5), Clinton Central (2-7, 0-1 HHC) visits Clinton Prairie (2-5, 0-1) in a league game; and Carroll (5-4) heads to Twin Lakes (5-5).
On Saturday, Peru visits Huntington North (5-6 before tonight’s action); Logansport (8-1) visits Cass; TC visits Lapel (6-4 heading into tonight); Twin Lakes visits Tipton; and Mac plays at Culver Academy (5-1 before tonight).
WEEKEND SCHEDULE TONIGHT Peru at Maconaquah Pioneer at Cass Tri-Central at Rossville Tipton at Sheridan Clinton Central at Clinton Prairie 6:30 p.m. -- Carroll at Twin Lakes 8:15 p.m. -- New Castle at Kokomo (girls-boys doubleheader) Howard Co. Tourney at Taylor 6 p.m. -- Eastern at Taylor 7:45 p.m. Western vs. Northwestern SATURDAY 12 p.m. -- Peru at Huntington North Carmel at Kokomo Logansport at Cass Tri-Central at Lapel Twin Lakes at Tipton Maconaquah at Culver Academy Howard Co. Tourney at Taylor 6 p.m. -- Consolation 7:45 p.m. -- Championship All games 6 p.m. JV starts unless otherwise indicated