It’s early to be certain, but after Kokomo’s boys basketball team posted a season-opening 55-50 victory over Western on Tuesday night at Memorial Gym, Wildkat coach Bob Wonnell saw a lot of reasons to believe this Kokomo group has an improved approach on the court.

The Wildkats survived a gritty game by finding enough good looks offensively and making it tougher for the visiting Panthers to do the same.

The first half saw seven lead changes and three ties but Kokomo went ahead for good early in the second quarter, led 29-26 at halftime, then pushed the Panthers back in the third quarter. After a 3-pointer by Kokomo’s Jackson Richards with 6:29 left in the third made the score 34-28 Kokomo, the Kats never let Western close to a possession down the rest of the game.

“I just think from one game and a scrimmage, I think you can see that these guys like playing together more than our last two groups and the ball was really moving, and I think that starts with our two best players in Jackson and Bobby [Wonnell],” Bob Wonnell said.

Richards scored a team-high 20 points and Wonnell 11. Richards was 4 of 5 from 3-point range.

“Jackson shot 12 shots and Bobby shot eight shots. They both had four assists. I think their teammates realize the attention that they’ll draw and the fact that they should try to get them some touches when we go into halfcourt [offense]. When your best players are willing passers and good teammates I think that leads to sharing the ball on offense and really enjoying playing together. I thought [Tuesday] was a good first step, but we’ve got to keep plugging.”

Kokomo took control in the third quarter, opening up a 40-30 lead on a mid-range jumper by Bobby Wonnell at the free-throw line. Western spent the rest of the half a run away from being even, but never was able to get on a run to close the gap. The closest Western got after that was to cut the lead to five points twice in the final 30 seconds.

“I just thought they executed better in that third quarter,” Western coach Mike Lewis said. Kokomo led 41-35 after three quarters. “I thnk when we go back and look at the film, they made some shots and we missed some shots and they were able to stretch their lead, and from that point we had to play from behind and that’s not necessarily a strength of this team. But I was real proud of our kids’ resilience for battling all the way through to the very end. We played very hard. It’s a game that’s going to make us better.”

The Wildkats had a dozen turnovers at halftime and just five in the second half.

“We took much better care of the basketball,” Bob Wonnell said of the third quarter. “I thought we just did a better job of making the easy play, not forcing things when they were congested a little bit. Western plays an unorthodox 3-2 zone and they play it really well. I think it kind of bates you sometimes to throw some passes that you think might get in there, kind of high-reward, high-risk type deals and I think that was the case in the first half.

“[After halftime] we made a nice little move in their zone to put Bobby in the middle of their zone and he made a couple buckets and made it tough. And then Jackson, shoot, Jackson played really well.”

Bobby Wonnell hit two mid-range jumpers in the lane in the second half as Kokomo’s offense found more space. Rajon Sellers got free for a reverse layup under the basket in the third quarter. In the fourth, Richards sank a floater and Savion Barrett scored on a post move as the Kats found spaces inside the arc to go with effective outside shooting.

“I thought what really made a difference was their shooting,” Lewis said. “They were 7 for 14 from the 3-point line, we were 8 for 26, so I think we probably shot too many when there’s times we should have attacked the rim a little bit more, but it all comes with awareness and studying. We’ll figure that out.”

Guard Kyle Sanders led the Panthers with a game-high 23 points. He was held scoreless in the third period, but kept the Panthers knocking on the door with 11 points in the final period. Evan Kretz added 10 points and five rebounds. Cooper Jarvis took six boards.

Barrett added eight points, R.J. Oglesby six and Sellers five for the Kats, who got points or rebounds from nine players. Oglesby had six boards and Torian Smith five.

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