RUSSIAVILLE — Western guard Evan Kretz was seemingly all over the place in the first half against Kokomo on Tuesday.
First, the 6-foot-2 junior guard opened the game with a pair of 3-pointers to stake the Panthers to a 6-0 lead.
Later, after the Wildkats had taken their first and only lead of game at 17-16 early in the second quarter, Kretz answered with a personal 7-0 run. He backed down his defender in the lane for a basket, scored on a drive and canned another 3-pointer to put the Panthers back in control on their way to a 34-24 halftime lead.
Western kept the lead the rest of the way in beating Kokomo 61-46 in the teams’ traditional season opener. The 15-point margin of victory is the largest by the Panthers in series history, topping an 11-point win by the Panthers in the 1990 Kokomo Sectional.
Kretz finished with a team-high 18 points. He also had five rebounds, three steals and two assists in a nice all-around performance.
“I thought I came out aggressive and that’s what Coach [Mike Lewis] wants me to do,” Kretz said. “He’s always been harping on me to come out and play super aggressive, shooting whenever I can, because he says he has the highest amount of confidence in me. He says I need to have more confidence in myself.”
The Panthers backed Kretz with good balance. Kyle Sanders had 14 points, Nathaniel Liddell had 11, Parker Dean had eight and Mitchell Dean had seven. Kretz drilled four 3-pointers and Sanders, Mitchell Dean and Michael Gaines hit one apiece.
“All of our guys can shoot,” Kretz said. “That’s going to be a struggle for other teams, playing defense on us. They’re going to have to worry about everyone on the court, not just one person like the past few years.”
Western complemented its outside shooting with good work at the line. The Panthers made 18 of 22 free throw attempts with Sanders knocking down 9 of 10 and Liddell making 7 of 7.
The Panthers’ offensive average has gone from 45.5 points per game in 2017-18 (Lewis’ first season) to 47.7 two seasons ago to 55.3 last season. If Tuesday is any indication, the Panthers are in for another jump.
“Our kids have done a phenomenal job the last three or four years of really working their skill development,” Lewis said. “Your confidence comes from your decision making and your ability to do things with the basketball. So we have a bunch of guys on our team who can shoot it, drive it and pass it. It just makes it a really tough cover for the other team.”
After halftime, Kretz had a steal and dunk early in the third quarter and a 3-pointer midway through the quarter to help the Panthers maintain a comfortable advantage. It was 45-36 at the end of the quarter.
The Kats rallied to within six, 49-43, with 5:13 remaining. The Kats had possession with a chance to draw closer, but they committed a turnover and the Panthers quickly regained control. Sanders hit four free throws and Liddell had a hoop-and-harm 3-point play for a 56-43 lead at 4:00.
The Panthers played without main inside player Cooper Jarvis. In his place, the Dean brothers combined for 15 points and 11 rebounds.
“That’s exactly what we expected them to be able to do. It was nice to see it this early — we knew they’d be able to do it as the season went on. But they were confident in their play. They add a different dynamic to the team,” Lewis said.
Jackson Richards led Kokomo with a game-high 21 points. He also had seven rebounds, three steals and two assists. Bobby Wonnell had nine points and R.J. Oglesby had six points and a game-high 11 rebounds. Kokomo had just five assists and 18 turnovers.
“[The Panthers are] a good team and they played well. They moved the ball really well and shot it pretty well,” Kokomo coach Bob Wonnell said. “It’s just a disappointing result for us. I thought we played pretty hard, but I think offensively we have to move the ball better. All in all, 15 of 29 [shooting from 2-point range] is OK, but I think we could have gotten to the free throw line a lot more than we did if we had put more pressure on their defense.”
Overall, Kokomo holds a 62-9 lead in the all-time series and an 8-4 lead in games at Western, but the Panthers have won three of the last four at Richard R. Rea Gymasium.