BB WHS vs Carroll 18.JPG

Western forward Kace Howard goes up for a shot during the Panthers’ 50-41 victory over Carroll on Feb. 25 at Flora. Howard and the Panthers are preparing to play in the Class 3A South Bend Washington Regional on Saturday.

Update: The IHSAA on Friday postponed the state tournament.

Western’s boys basketball team is preparing for an all-new experience.

Western (17-7) is scheduled to play No. 11-ranked Hammond (20-4) in the Class 3A South Bend Washington’s semifinal round Saturday. No. 4 Mishawaka Marian (21-4) and Hanover Central (24-2) are matched in the other semifinal.

The opponents are all new. The location is as well. And the atmosphere? That’s going to be unlike anything with which any of the teams are familiar— if the regional is played.

The IHSAA announced Thursday the state tournament will continue as scheduled, but with limited spectators in attendance in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19). Each participating school will have only 75 complimentary tickets to distribute to school personnel and immediate family only — no cheerleaders, student sections or general public.

With Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and other states cancelling their tournaments, Indiana’s situation bears watching today.

“Right now, everything is status quo,” Western coach Mike Lewis said Thursday evening. “I think it’s still a very fluid situation.”

The Panthers (17-7) are coming off their first sectional championship since 2012.

“They’re really excited and I think they’re hungry for the opportunity to go up and play in a regional against obviously great competition,” said Lewis, who’s in this third year at the school. “They’re looking forward to the challenge. The biggest thing is they were excited they got to be around each other for another week. This is one of the most connected teams I’ve coached in 10 years.”

Western defeated Twin Lakes and West Lafayette to win the Twin Lakes Sectional. The Panthers’ defense was suffocating in both games, most notably when Western held West Lafayette to one point in the opening quarter.

“We were really locked into the scouting reports,” Lewis said. “We went through that three-game losing streak [late in the regular season], besides not shooting the ball very well, we had a lot of [uncharacteristic] defensive miscues. We had been locked in on that side of the ball — effort, awareness and toughness. Those are three things that have been our calling card and we got away from that a little bit, but they locked right back in at sectional.”

Western holds opponents to 47 points per game.

Hammond is an offensive-minded team. The Wildcats score 72 points per game, which ranks No. 16 in the state. They have five players who average in double figures.

“They’re really, really good,” Lewis said. “They have a 6-7 kid inside [Darrell Reed] who can go over both shoulders, take up space, is an excellent athlete. They have a couple 6-4 shooters [Harold Woods and Jamar Styles] that are both good off the bounce and can shoot it. And then they have a 5-9 point guard [Reggie Abram] who’s as quick as any player that we’ve played all year and who’s super aggressive.”

Woods scores a team-high 15.6 points per game. Reed follows with 15.4. Abram averages 11 points and 4.1 assists, 6-2 guard Tim Wilder scores 10.7 and Styles scores 10.3. The Wildcats are a handful on the boards — Reed averages 8.7 rebounds per game, Styles takes 8.5 and Woods takes 6.8.

“They’re going to present their challenges with their athleticism and their ability to attack the rim and shoot the basketball,” Lewis said. “They have nice balance inside and outside. I think our kids are looking forward to the challenge of trying to beat them as a team and making them try to play our game versus us playing their game.”

Western scores 55.3 points per game and is led by the perimeter trio of juniors Kyle Sanders and Nathaniel Liddell and sophomore Evan Kretz.

The regional experience should benefit the Panthers next year when they return a strong nucleus.

“There’s no doubt that the future of the program is bright, the younger kids are talented and have bought into skill development and working hard, but none of that takes place without someone modeling how that’s supposed to look,” Lewis said. “The seniors we have this year, the seniors we had last year and the seniors we had two years ago, all of those kids deserve a lot of credit for setting the culture of the program.

“We feel very good about the state of our program and what the future of Panther basketball looks like and it’s all because the kids bought in and worked hard.”

• In the opening semifinal, Mishawaka Marian is led by 6-2 guard Jerry Bracey (19 points, 5.5 assists) and 6-0 guard Deaglan Sullivan (14.3 points). Hanover Central counters with balance. The Wildcats are led by 6-1 guard Dominic Lucido (13.5 points, 4.5 assists), 6-3 guard/forward T.J. Burt (13.2 points), 6-9 post Landen Babusiak (11.3 points, 6.8 rebounds) and 6-2 guard Joey Glidewell (9.5 points).

Bryan Gaskins is the Tribune's sports editor. He may be reached at bryan.gaskins@kokomotribune.com or 765-454-8567.

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Bryan Gaskins is the Kokomo Tribune's sports editor. He joined the sports department in a full-time capacity in September 1999 and moved into the editor's role in January 2010.

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