RUSSIAVILLE — Western’s boys basketball team fought a grudge match against Sectional 20 rival West Lafayette on Friday night at Richard R. Rea Gymnasium.
The game was neck and neck through three-quarters of play with the Red Devils’ speed and physicality testing the Panthers every step of the way. A small scoring burst to open the fourth quarter helped lift the Panthers to a 54-46 victory.
Western improved to 7-4 and West Lafayette dropped to 5-5. The Red Devils are three-time defending sectional champions.
Two buckets in the opening minute of the game set West Lafayette’s tone — attack. The Panthers remained composed and made buckets, allowing them to keep pace on the scoreboard.
Turnovers hindered the Panthers’ offense early. However, they found a way to go on a 7-0 run in the first two and a half minutes of the second quarter, but scored only three points the rest of the first half. West Lafayette’s Tyler Boyle received an in-bounds pass with 2.6 seconds remaining and hit a corner 3-point shot to lift the Red Devils to a 20-18 lead at halftime.
“I thought we weren’t finishing in and around the rim [in the first half],” said Western coach Michael Lewis. “I thought we got some good looks. I thought we were aggressive. We just weren’t finishing.”
On top of the six turnovers, the Panthers were 7 of 17 from the floor in the half, with leading scorer Kyle Sanders limited to six points on two 3-pointers.
“We told our guys at halftime [to] just stay aggressive, stay confident in what you are doing,” said Lewis. “You’re going to knock down shots. We’re going to finish around the rim, but the game was going to boil down to our toughness and discipline on the other side of the ball, and I thought we had it for 32 minutes.”
The Panthers worked hard on defense all night long. The big threat from West Lafayette was Yanni Karlaftis. His strength and agility in the post gave the Panther big men a struggle. He finished with a team-high 16 points, but the Panthers held him to 6-of-18 shooting.
“I was really, really proud of our big guys,” said Lewis. “Yanni ended up with 16, but I thought he had to work for every single one of them. I thought they battled him every single possession.”
Lewis pointed to another key to the win was keeping the Devils off the offensive glass. While the Panthers were out-rebounded for the game, they limited the Devils to seven offensive rebounds.
Leading the Panthers’ 36-point charge in the second half was Sanders. He left his first-half struggles behind, scoring 22 of his 28 points in the second half. He was 8 for 10 from the field and made all three of the free throws. In the fourth quarter alone, he scored 14, which helped the Panthers pull away from the Red Devils.
“[Sanders] was an absolute stud,” said Lewis. “I thought he got off to a slow start in the first half, but I just thought he took the game over. He was the best player on the floor, and he played like it — he was fantastic.”
Western has won four in a row.
“We showed great poise,” said Lewis. “The nice thing is, I thought [Friday] was the first time on the floor I really heard the guys talking, and it looked like a player-led team. I was really proud of them for that.”