BY PEDRO VELAZCO KOKOMO TRIBUNE
---- — When Western’s boys basketball team smelled blood on Friday night, the Panthers’ predatory instincts took over.
Up 27-24 at halftime against Northwestern in the second semifinal of the Howard County Tournament at Taylor, the Panthers pounced on a sputtering Purple Tiger squad in the third quarter. After a Northwestern free throw, the Panthers took over with a 16-2 run that pushed their lead up to 43-27.
Western’s lead never dipped below 13 points as the Panthers maintained control for a 67-54 victory. It’s Western’s 10th straight win over Northwestern. Western will face Taylor tonight in the championship game.
“I want to give the guys a lot of credit for listening at halftime, and making those adjustments,” Western coach Bart Miller said. “There in the third quarter, it paid off. We made a nice healthy run in the third that broke it open for us.”
The Panthers had scored six straight to make the lead 37-27 when Western’s press pounced. Western forced two straight turnovers with fullcourt pressure and converted on the other end with layups by Des Balentine and Mo Townsend to push the lead to 41-27 with 4:09 left in the third.
“A 10-0 run is bad [for the opponent] but if you can extend it with creating turnovers and then capitalizing on those turnovers [that is] a big deal for us,” Miller said. “I thought Evan [Warden] and Des did a nice job of anticipating by making those steals, or at least deflecting the ball to where a teammate could make the steal. And the guys made excellent decisions as we were attacking the basket.”
Later, Western finished the frame with a 3-ball from Warden, then started the fourth with a 3-pointer from Townsend to put Northwestern 20 points back at 53-33.
The Purple Tigers kept trying to claw at the lead, but never got enough going offensively to make a run. The Tigers connected on just 16 of 53 shots.
“Our toughness was not there,” Northwestern coach Jim Gish said. “We didn’t finish around the rim. We counted somewhere between 16 and 22 layups that we missed. Turnovers  hurt and just the toughness [aspect] of the game [hurt], where we didn’t step up and take charges like we should, we didn’t keep people in front of us like we should.”
Northwestern routinely uses 10 or more players in a half. The Tigers played 11 in the first quarter, and early in the third Gish sent a full wave of five subs in to replace the starting unit.
“We still finished the first quarter up 13-8, but our starters weren’t giving us anything, so the second group really did spark us,” Gish said, noting sparks from Logan Macaluso and Evan Matlock in the first quarter.
Western’s offense worked well. Driving guards Balentine and Warden forced the action, scoring 21 and 17 respectively. Zach Shahan made himself open inside for 14 points and Townsend added 11.
“Second quarter we started getting more movement, more ball movement, sharing the ball. That’s where Shahan started getting some open looks,” Miller said. “Zach was doing exactly what he’s supposed to, taking that dive into the block area [when his defender was drawn away] and getting some open looks for us.”
Shahan led Western with nine rebounds. Northwestern reserve Tyler Hudson had a game-high 11. Matlock and Hudson each scored nine points to lead Northwestern.