By Mark Saluke
It was a classic example of why it takes a full four quarters before you can call it a game, and it almost turned out to be a tough lesson for the Kokomo boys basketball team to swallow Friday night.
The Class 4A No. 9-ranked Wildkats nearly lost a double-digit halftime lead but held off Marion’s furious comeback attempt and hung on to escape Bill Green Arena with a 57-55 win in North Central Conference play.
Up by 17 at the half, Kokomo’s lead dwindled from 32-15 to 36-32 by the end of the third quarter as the Giants outscored the Kats 17-4 in the frame.
Marion (1-4, 0-1 NCC) shaved it to a two-point game, 54-52, with :18 to play in the game on a Kam Long 3-pointer. At the other end, Erik Bowen hit the first of a double-bonus free throw to make it 55-52.
Alec Turner’s trey to tie at the other end missed and Bowen pulled down the rebound and was fouled. Bowen knocked down both freebies to make it 57-52 with just :3.3 remaining. Turner’s deep 3 at the buzzer made it a two-point final.
“No matter how big the lead, you’ve got to have poise and stay with it to maintain a lead,” Kats senior LaBradford Sebree said. “This is a tough environment and we came in and got a good win. Bill Green [Arena] is always a tough place to play. Any time it’s a conference game, it’s always a big win. This game helps us get a little bit of a foot up going to 2-0.”
Sebree finished with a game-high 22 points as Kokomo remained perfect in conference play as well as remaining unblemished at 5-0 overall. Sebree netted 18 of his points in the first half, shooting 8 of 10 from the field over the first 16 minutes.
“I was just knocking down the open shot, taking what the defense gave me,” Sebree said. “I hadn’t had a good shooting night in a while. This was just one of those nights where when you’re on, you’re on.”
Tayler Persons finished with a double-double of 21 points and 11 rebounds for the Kats, and he also had five steals and four assists. Sebree and Persons accounted for all of Kokomo’s first-quarter points as the Kats jumped out to a 14-7 lead at the first stop.
“Just a great first half for LaBradford,” Kokomo coach Brian McCauley said. “He played very, very well. His shot selection was outstanding.”
Kokomo expanded its lead with an 8-0 run to open the second quarter, going up by double-digits at 22-9 midway through the period and outscoring the cold-shooting Giants 18-8 in the frame for the big lead at the half.
“We established a good tempo with our press, did a good job of rebounding, our shot selection was great,” McCauley said. “We were able to create offense from our defense, we were attacking inside-out … just a phenomenal first half.
“Obviously, we needed it. We communicated to the guys that Marion is a very good team. We knew it was going to be a 32-minute game, and that’s exactly what it was.”
Marion rattled off a 10-1 run over the first five minutes of the second half to shave it to a 33-25 contest. After a cool 5 of 20 first-half shooting performance, the Giants were 6 of 10 in the third period.
“There’s no place where you can draw up a 17-point play, and we knew it would be a process,” Marion coach Billy Shepherd said. “We talked at halftime about how you can feel sorry for yourself or go out and play. The good news is that we didn’t feel sorry for ourselves. We gave a great effort in the second half and if one more three falls we might still be out there playing.”
Kokomo strung together a 9-2 run at the start of the fourth quarter to get the lead back up to double-digits, 45-34, with 5:29 to play, but the Giants continued chipping away.
“Marion is a good team, that is pretty much what happened,” McCauley said. “Compound our mistakes with that, the fact that they’re an athletic team and they started making shots and we were turning the ball over.”
In the end, McCauley pointed to the charity stripe as a difference maker.
“Free throws were the difference in the game,” McCauley said. “They were playing a rugged style. It wasn’t a quick second half.”
The Kats shot 19 of 27 from the line for the game, going 15 of 22 in the second half, while the Giants were 9 of 15 for the game.
Hakim Burnett had nine points and four steals for the Kats.