GREENTOWN — For players and fans alike, Northwestern and Eastern’s renewal of its Howard County rivalry on the boys basketball hardwood Saturday night was a worthwhile reunion.
Playing their first game against each other in three seasons, the Tigers and host Comets gave the crowd a back-and-forth show for three quarters before Northwestern pulled away down the stretch, outscoring Eastern 19-8 in the final frame for a 49-42 win.
Reigning Kokomo Tribune boys basketball All-Area MVP Tayson Parker keyed the crucial run. After sitting out much of the third quarter with three fouls, the Tiger senior and Indiana Wesleyan recruit netted 10 of his game-high 26 points over the final eight minutes as Northwestern turned a 37-32 deficit early in the period into the seven-point win.
“They made a little run at the end and were able to get away from us,” Eastern coach Mike Springer said. “We were up and we kind of let up. I was really proud of the way the kids competed but obviously they made some plays down the stretch.”
Ethan Wilcox had just hit a 3-pointer to put Eastern (1-1) up 37-32 with 7:34 showing in the fourth when Parker opened the Tigers’ closing run with a pair of quick hoops to get Northwestern (2-0) within a point at 37-36.
After a Karson West basket pushed Eastern’s lead back to 39-36, Mason Estle lobbed a beautiful pass to Parker for an alley-oop dunk that started a 12-0 run that saw Northwestern take the lead on an Eli Edwards hoop and the Tigers never look back, leading by as much as nine points at 48-39 after a pair of Estle free throws with :09 to play.
Estle and Edwards added seven points apiece to aid the Tigers, with Estle keeping Northwestern alive in the third quarter with a pair of buckets that halted an 8-0 Eastern run.
“Eli is getting better and better as just a sophomore playing at the varsity level and I think he’s getting there,” Northwestern coach Jim Gish said of his role players stepping up. “I thought he was really aggressive and I thought Estle was just phenomenal with a few key offensive rebounds and a few key baskets for us. So I was really impressed with the way we had kids stepping up. It’s just going to be a growing process.”
Eastern saw balanced scoring for its second straight game. Wilcox led the way with 12 points. Matt Arcari drilled three 3-pointers on the way to 11 points, and Evan Monize notched a double-double of 10 points and 10 rebounds.
After Northwestern’s Nathan Bennett scored the game’s opening bucket, Eastern responded with two triples from Arcari and another from Wilcox to go up 9-2 on the way to a 13-12 lead at the first stop.
Parker finished a Comet turnover with a dunk to open the second quarter, setting the stage for Northwestern to lead by as many as seven points at 26-19 on the way to a 26-21 halftime advantage.
“I think inexperience showed early and then we settled down into kind of a rhythm,” Gish said. “Eastern hit some shots throughout the game. I mean, they were hitting shots. They were definitely on their home floor, making shots. And Mike has them playing really good defense so then we know it’s going to be a grind game and we were forcing a little bit so that’s some stuff we have to talk about.”
Evan Monize scored six straight points to fuel the Comets’ 8-0 run to open the second half. With Parker on the bench for much of the frame, Eastern outscored Northwestern 13-4 in the period to lead 34-30 heading into the fourth quarter.
With Parker back in the mix, Northwestern controlled the tempo and the momentum for most of the final eight minutes.
“They were beating us on the boards late,” Springer said. “I think that was a difference maker. There were several times they had three shots and that was tough. But Parker made some plays, a couple guys got rebound baskets and we just kind of ran out of gas.
“It was just a good back-yard game. Both teams were really out there competing hard and it was just a good high school basketball game.”