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Northwestern guard Nathan Bennett celebrates after the Tigers’ 57-44 victory over Western on Friday night at Richard R. Rea Gymnasium. Bennett drilled a pair of big 3-pointers in the fourth quarter and finished with 19 points.

RUSSIAVILLE — Northwestern’s boys basketball team jumped to leads of 9-3 and 16-7 against Western on Friday night, but the Panthers battled back for 18-all and 20-all ties before the Tigers took a 24-20 lead into halftime.

The Panthers had the ball to open the second half and a chance to tighten the game again — but Northwestern standout Tayson Parker had other ideas.

The Indiana All-Star candidate came up with a steal in the defensive halfcourt and broke away for a rim-rattling dunk to ignite a 10-0 run that helped propel the Tigers to a 57-44 win in the Hoosier Conference East Division opener for both teams.

“When you dunk it, it kind of deflates the other team and gives you an energy boost so I always try to when I can. Obviously it’s a fun thing to do,” Parker said. “They gave me the chance so I took it. Huge crowd here so I’m like, let’s have some fun.”

The Tigers had plenty of fun as they beat the Panthers for the sixth straight time.

“Obviously the atmosphere never gets old, it’s always thrilling,” Parker said of the rivalry game. “To come in and beat Western at [its] home is kind of a big deal.”

Parker finished with game highs of 29 points and 11 rebounds. In four career games against the Panthers, the Indiana Wesleyan recruit is averaging 29.5 points per game.

Defending Hoosier champion Northwestern is surrounding Parker with an all-new supporting cast. Nathan Bennett stepped to the forefront Friday by backing Parker with 19 points. The Tiger senior made 7 of 11 shots from the field, including 4 of 6 from 3-land.

“It’s always nice to see those role players come into play and step up big,” Northwestern coach Jim Gish said. “[Friday], it happened to be Nate Bennett. We have several other guys who we feel can do nice things on any given night and if teams are going to focus that much on Tayson, it’s going to take people to do that.”

Bennett drilled two 3-pointers in the first quarter to help the Tigers jump out to an early lead. He came up big again in the fourth quarter. Western had rallied to within five with 6:24 remaining. Bennett split one of two free throws at 6:12, then delivered the dagger with back-to-back 3-pointers that made it 49-37 at 3:10. The first one was set up by an offensive rebound.

The Tigers (3-0 overall) finished with a decisive 39-22 rebounding advantage. They had 10 offensive rebounds and cashed in on several of them.

The Tigers had 20 turnovers, 11 more than the Panthers, but Northwestern’s defense helped clean up the mistakes. The Tigers held the Panthers (1-2) to 30% shooting from the field overall and 22% from 3-land.

“We really shut [Kyle] Sanders down, did a good defensive job on him,” Parker said. “We let [Avery] Hayes get a little loose, but other than that I think we did a good job.”

Gish loved the Tigers’ defensive effort.

“I think we were hard to score against,” he said. “I think we made Western shoot challenged shots. They’re a very good shooting team and they do a lot of things well offensively so you have to stay true to the defensive assignments and the game plan. We have seniors and they stood out. We had a few mental lapses, but overall I thought we stayed true to the discipline we wanted on the defensive end.”

Also for the Tigers, Mason Estle had six points and six rebounds, Eli Edwards had eight rebounds and Bennett added six rebounds.

Sanders and Evan Kretz led the Panthers with 11 points apiece.

The Panthers struggled to find any offensive rhythm. They made just 2 of 12 shots in the first quarter, warmed up a little in the second quarter then struggled again in the second half.

“We thought we had some good looks in the first half, which would have made the push that [the Tigers] made in the second half a little bit more manageable,” Western coach Mike Lewis said. “The kids did a nice job of gutting their way back into a game and we kind of lost our composure a little bit, got a little sloppy with the basketball and had some indecisiveness.

“It’s all a good learning experience for us but credit to Northwestern, they stepped up and played well. The Bennett kid shot the ball really well and they pounded us on the glass.”

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