RUSSIAVILLE — Western’s boys basketball team rode a dominant defensive effort to a 60-43 victory over Twin Lakes in the Hoosier Conference championship Friday night at Richard R. Rea Gymnasium.
The Panthers held the Indians to 30.2% shooting overall (13 of 43) and 14.2% shooting from 3-point range (2 of 14). The Panthers suffocated the Indians in the first half in particular as they roared to a 33-14 halftime lead.
“Our defense has been solid all year,” senior guard Kyle Sanders said. “I feel like we haven’t put together a full 32 minutes of Western defense, but we’re getting there — each day, each game, we’re taking the right steps.”
Call it a process. It’s something with which the Panthers are familiar.
Western was coming off back-to-back 4-19 seasons when coach Mike Lewis came aboard four years ago. His rebuilding project began with a team that included Sanders as a freshman. The Panthers took their lumps that first year, but they have built each year. They won the Sectional 20 title last year — and have followed with their first Hoosier Conference title this year.
It’s Western’s first conference title overall since winning the old Mid-Indiana Conference in 2012.
“It feels fantastic,” Sanders said. “Me and the other seniors — Coop [Jarvis], [Nathaniel] Liddell, big Dan [Marley] — we’ve put in the work over the past four years to earn this. All the guys who stepped on the floor played hard and I’m proud of this team for that.”
Lewis praised his players for their work in building the program.
“This is something that wasn’t just won [Friday], it’s something that’s been building for four years,” he said. “These kids have put in a lot of hours to earn the right to win the conference. Just super, super proud of the kids we have. It’s a honor to coach them.”
Western (15-5) rocked Twin Lakes with a 13-0 flurry over the first 4:00 of the game and the Panthers kept a comfortable lead the rest of the way in posting their 10th straight win.
The Indians (14-4) had one good stretch, using an 8-0 run to draw within 22-14 midway through the second quarter. But Liddell scored off a press break to quickly push the lead back to double digits — and ignite an 11-0 run that made it 33-14 at halftime.
Western shot 12 of 23 in the half while Twin Lakes was 5 of 22 with eight turnovers.
The Panthers led 43-27 after the third quarter. Sanders hit a pair of 3-pointers in the opening minute of the final quarter to make it 49-28 and the Panthers cruised from there to the final.
Western improved to 2-0 against Twin Lakes this season — the Panthers beat the Indians 57-48 on Jan. 30 — with a possible third meeting looming in the sectional next month at Twin Lakes.
“I felt we came out with a sense of urgency and really made life difficult on them on their end,” Lewis said. “The offense kind of came and went at times, but the toughness was there for 32 minutes. And when you play a team for a second time — especially a well-coached team, a solid team — for us to come out and play the way we did says a lot about our the character of our kids and their toughness.”
Sanders finished with a game-high 22 points. Liddell scored 14 points and Evan Kretz had 12. Kretz and Mitchell Dean had seven rebounds apiece and Liddell had five boards.
Lewis pointed to Liddell’s all-around play as a highlight.
“He’s so difficult to stay in front of [when he has the ball] and he’s a two-way player, he’s also our best defender,” Lewis said. “They have a great point guard in [Clayton] Bridwell and I think Liddell made life difficult on him. He doesn’t get enough mention for the type of defensive player that he is ... I think he’s the best defensive player in the county.”
Liddell limited Bridwell to five points and 2-of-10 shooting. Noah Johnston led the Indians with 10 points. He scored nine points in the third quarter after the Panthers held him to 0-of-8 shooting in the first half.
Lewis improved to 51-38 at Western and reached 150 career wins overall (150-104). The Panthers improved to 19-18 in their all-time series with the Indians.
Western hosts Beech Grove (13-5) today in a matchup of defending Class 3A sectional champions. It’s a 3 p.m. JV start.