By Bryan Gaskins
Tribune sports editor
Western boys basketball coach Bart Miller had to survive a few anxious moments before celebrating his first win Friday night.
Western owned a seemingly comfortable 19-point lead against Northwestern early in the fourth quarter, but the Tigers stormed back to draw within one in the final minute — and the Tigers had a shot to win in the closing seconds. All-Area player Trenton Brazel’s baseline jumper was off the mark and the Panthers then added a free throw and escaped with a 64-62 win in the first Mid-Indiana Conference game of the season.
“It was a very exciting game,” Miller said. “We built a big lead, but I told our guys, ‘They are not going to quit. They are going to come at us with double teams and traps and we have to meet our passes.’ We did a decent job — well enough to win the game. We’ll obviously learn from it. I liked how our guys showed resiliency.
“I thank the players for giving me my first varsity win. I’m very happy right now.”
Northwestern found itself in another entertaining game after opening with a pair of double-overtime games last week. The Tigers won both of those games, but they simply dug too deep a hole against the Panthers.
“We didn’t run out of gas, which was nice, but it was just the situation that we put ourselves into,” NW coach Jim Gish said. “We have a lot of inexperience and that showed up early in the game. Once we settled down and came out after halftime, I thought the kids really got back to showing they’re made of a lot of heart and they want to compete.”
Western (1-1) led wire to wire, jumping to an 11-2 advantage less than three minutes into the game. The Panthers went on to lead 22-14 at the end of the opening quarter, 37-25 at halftime and 52-36 after three quarters.
The Panthers received strong contributions from several players. Senior forward Austin Townsend had 10 points in the opening quarter, sophomore guard Des Balentine had seven points in the second quarter and junior forward Mo Townsend had a pair of putback baskets and seven points in the third quarter.
“We started off the first half really strong and we were up 12 at the half. Our game plan was to come out [steady] and increase the lead, but Northwestern played a really good half and they came all the way back and it was a nail-biter at the end,” Austin Townsend said.
Western scored the first three points of the final quarter to build a 55-36 lead with 7:17 remaining. Northwestern followed with a 13-2 run to draw within 57-49 at 3:25. Brazel had seven points during the run — and after Western’s Evan Warden hit a pair of free throws, the Tiger standout drilled a 3-pointer to make it 59-52 at 3:09.
Balentine drove the lane for a basket and a 61-52 lead at 2:28, but Brazel hit a 3-pointer off a second-chance opportunity — and after the Panthers committed a turnover, the Tigers’ Blaine Brutus hit a triple off another second-chance opportunity to bring his squad within 61-58 at 1:33.
The Panthers held a 63-60 lead entering the final minute, but they committed another turnover and the Tigers’ Jacob Wagner scored on a drive to make it 63-62 at :46. Balentine missed the front end of a one-and-bonus at :19.4. The Tigers called a timeout at :07.4, then gave the ball to Brazel, who drove from the top of the free throw circle to the right baseline. Brazel had a good look, but his shot was contested and it missed. Austin Townsend grabbed the rebound.
“Trenton Brazel is a tough player and he had a clip at the end where he wasn’t missing, so we just had to shut down him and just try not to foul at the end,” Austin Townsend said.
The final second featured a missed free throw by Townsend, a technical foul on the Tigers for calling a timeout when they had none left, and the Panthers’ Evan Warden splitting a pair of free throws to account for the final.
Austin Townsend finished with a double-double of 14 points and a game-high 11 rebounds. He led Western to a 32-28 advantage on the boards.
“Austin played an excellent all-around game,” Miller said, noting Townsend’s double-double. “And he was the guy on Brazel most of the night and for the most part we held Brazel pretty nicely in the first three quarters. He exploded there in the fourth on us. He is a heady player and he won’t give up.”
Also for the Panthers, Balentine scored a team-high 16 points and earned praise for Miller for his all-around play, Warden had 10 points, Austin Weaver and Ronnie Smith had eight points apiece and Mo Townsend had seven points.
Brazel scored a game-high 25 points and grabbed eight rebounds for the Tigers. He had 13 points in the final quarter, playing the final 7:38 with four fouls.
Graham Ortmann added 14 points for the Tigers. Gish also noted the sparks provided by backups Keegan Downey (seven points, four rebounds) and Brutus.
Western and Northwestern finished 1-2 in the conference last season. The Panthers hope Friday’s win sparks another title run this season.
“You don’t win the conference by winning this game and you don’t necessarily lose it, either. But a loss here puts you behind the eight-ball because I don’t know if anybody has ever won the conference with two losses,” Miller said. “Being able to survive this game against a good Northwestern team was a great learning experience for us.”