MUNCIE — With just under 6:00 to play in the opening half and Class 4A No. 8-ranked Kokomo clinging to a 13-12 lead at Muncie Central on Friday night, the Bearcat student section began throwing out “overrated” chants as Wildkat star Flory Bidunga stepped to the line and missed the first of two free throws.
Kokomo heard the heckling loud and clear. Bidunga hit the second free throw to open an 11-0 Kat run over the next three minutes as Reis Beard netted seven points and Bidunga and Deundre Kirby added hoops for a 24-12 lead. Muncie never got closer than nine the rest of the way as the Kats cruised to a 62-38 North Central Conference boys basketball win.
Kokomo (11-4) improved to 5-0 in NCC play while Muncie (7-4) fell to 2-2. Aside from the Kats, Anderson is the only other remaining undefeated team in conference play at 4-0 following a 77-53 win over Harrison on Friday. If both squads take care of business in the meantime, the Kats and Indians will clash for the title in the conference finale for both squads on Feb. 17.
Patrick Hardimon turned in a solid all-around performance for the Kats, netting a team-high 15 points that included seven in the first quarter. His free throws at the end of the frame put Kokomo up for good, 11-10, after a tug-of-war opening period.
“He’s done a great job these last few weeks, guarding the other team’s best player and offensively he’s starting to get more comfortable, getting some open shots,” Kokomo coach John Peckinpaugh said. “[Friday] he really got to the rim and played off two feet and under control.”
Bidunga notched his 37th double-double in 42 career games, matching his 12 points with 12 rebounds, adding four blocks, three steals, three assists and one thundering dunk late in the game.
Beard scored 12 points and Shayne Spear scored eight points while adding a team-best six assists.
Bidunga was wrapped up — literally at times — throughout the night. The 6-foot-10 junior was swarmed throughout the game and took a lot of hits as he battled for position. Usually all smiles, his fourth-quarter jam — following an offensive rebound where two defenders made hard contact and nearly knocked him over — seemed to have a little extra emphasis on it.
“I thought this was one of the worst nights where he just got hit every time, couldn’t move, couldn’t get in anywhere,” Peckinpaugh said. “He does a great job of staying positive and not letting it get to him, but [Friday] was bad.”
Leading 28-19 at the half, Kokomo went up 34-21 on a Beard basket early in the third. After Muncie countered with a Josiah Ullom triple to make it a 10-point game, 34-24, the Kats closed the quarter on a 10-2 run. Bidunga hit 3 of 4 foul shots during the run, Zavion Bellamy and Hardimon added buckets, and Shayne Spear swished a 3-pointer to give Kokomo a 44-26 lead heading to the fourth.
From there, the Kats’ lead swelled to as many as 25 in the fourth quarter.
Kokomo shot an impressive 57.5% (23 of 40) overall. Beard was a perfect 5 of 5 and Bidunga was 4 of 4 while Hardimon shot 6 of 11.
The Kats’ defense was equally impressive, holding the Bearcats to 38 points, their second-lowest scoring output of the season.
“I thought we defended really well,” Peckinpaugh said. “I think we kind of frustrated and wore them down by the end of the game. We didn’t let them get too many good looks. We did a good job of taking them out of what they wanted to do.”
The Kats jumped out to a 7-2 first-quarter lead but Ullom spurred an 8-2 run with six points as the Bearcats took their final lead at 10-9 with :58 to play in the period. From there the Kats slowly took over with a series of runs to create separation the rest of the way.
“We came out flat a little bit and didn’t have a ton of energy,” Peckinpaugh said. “They called a timeout there and we came out and really got after it and competed. I’m proud of how our guys responded after that timeout in the first quarter.”
Ullom and Daniel Harris scored 13 points each to lead Muncie.