Two nights after Kokomo’s boys basketball team beat high-scoring Arsenal Tech 74-70 in a run-and-gun game, the Wildkats beat methodical Huntington North 43-32 in a grinder Friday night at Memorial Gym.
“You go from one end of the extreme to the other in how Tech plays and how these guys play,” Kokomo coach John Peckinpaugh said. “It’s tough to do in a one-day prep, but our guys came to practice [Thursday], worked their butts off, and we were able to prepare. I thought we came out [Friday] and executed really well.”
With the back-to-back wins, Kokomo closed the regular season 15-7, and built momentum for the Class 4A Logansport Sectional next week. Kokomo drew a bye and will face the Marion-Harrison winner Friday night.
“I think we’re starting to hit our peak,” Peckinpaugh said. “We’ve kind of talked all year about how we want to find a way to win a sectional championship, and I think this week helped us. To win our sectional, we’ll have to beat Marion [or] Harrison and most likely [Lafayette] Jeff. We saw a blend of all those teams in the two teams we played this week and I think our guys responded and proved that we’re ready to compete at that level.”
Count Huntington North coach Craig Teagle as someone who thinks the Kats can cut down sectional nets.
“They’re a really good team,” he said. “I love [Kokomo center Flory Bidunga], just changes the game on both ends, but he’s got a lot of surrounding pieces that play really well. And Coach Peckinpaugh played against me as a player [at Muncie Central] when I was coaching Jay County and his team is resembling him in toughness and poise. ... We came and watched them on Wednesday night and that’s what won them the game.
“They play with toughness and they play with poise and that’s what it takes to win big games.”
Led by Bidunga’s dominant presence inside, the Kats held the Vikings to 25% shooting (11 of 44). The state’s leading shot blocker swatted six shots and took two steals. In addition to his blocks, the 6-foot-10 sophomore altered probably just as many and caused several Viking players to pass instead of shoot.
“We’ve had a great shooting year and I think we may have broken the school record this year, 53 or 54 percent from the field, and we couldn’t put one in the hole [Friday]. The big made a difference at times, but sometimes we just missed shots you have to make,” Teagle said.
Bidunga set the tone by blocking the Vikings’ first two shots of the game. The Kats led 7-5 at the end of the first quarter with Bidunga scoring four points and Shayne Spear splashing a 3-pointer.
The Vikings (14-9) scored first in the second quarter for an 8-7 lead, but the Kats’ Zion Bellamy followed with a putback to put his squad back in the lead and the Kats kept the lead the rest of the way. It was 20-15 at halftime.
Kokomo seemed in danger of losing its lead when Bidunga picked up his third foul at 6:49 of the third quarter. He sat the remainder of the quarter. The Vikings took advantage to draw within one, 22-21, before Patrick Hardimon gave the Kats a much-needed boost by hitting a 3-pointer to make it 25-21 at 2:53 of the quarter. After the Vikings scored on a fastbreak, Spear knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers to help the Kats gain separation with a 31-23 lead at the close of the quarter.
The Kats went up 34-23 in the opening minute of the fourth quarter, but Bidunga picked up his fourth foul and returned to the bench at 6:29 with the Kats leading 34-26. The Kats weathered his absence — they led 36-30 when he returned at 2:43.
The Kats secured the win with free throws. Bidunga made both ends of a one-and-one at 2:09, Reis Beard did likewise at 1:22, Beard split a double bonus at :52 and Bidunga made both ends of a double bonus at :31.
Bidunga finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds for his 19th double-double of the season. He was 6 of 7 from the field and a perfect 6 of 6 from the free-throw line. Spear scored 11 points and Zavion Bellamy had five points and seven assists.
“I think our guys did a really good job,” Peckinpaugh said. “[The Vikings] make it really hard for you to score and then offensively, they just make it a long game — they move, they have great motion offense — but I thought we executed down the stretch really well.”