By Josh Sigler
Fort Wayne — A hostile environment with an amped-up cheerblock and emotional opponent celebrating its senior class’ final game in front of the home fans? For Kokomo’s boys basketball team, it was just what the doctor ordered for a regular-season finale.
The Class 4A No. 8-ranked Wildkats weathered all the circumstances, and with a career-high 23 points from Erik Bowen, defeated the 4A No. 9 Northrop Bruins 68-58 Friday night at Mark Schoeff Gymnasium to wrap up the regular season with an 18-4 record.
Kokomo will enter sectional play having won 11 of its last 12 games, bouncing back from last week’s overtime loss at Richmond.
“The career-high is awesome, but we wanted this win really bad,” said Bowen, who also had a career-high 11 rebounds. “Going into the tournament, we wanted to get our momentum rolling. I think that’s what matters the most. Yeah, I played really well, but the win was really one that we needed.”
The Kats struggled a bit out of the gates, connecting on just one of their first six shots from the floor in the first four minutes of the contest. Four Kokomo turnovers in that same span helped the Bruins (18-3) jump to a 12-5 early lead before the Kats cut it to 17-14 at the end of the first quarter with the help of a pair of treys from senior D.J. Balentine.
Sophomore starter Tayler Persons was whistled for his second foul at the 5:47 mark of the opening period, and coach Brian McCauley called on Bowen for a spark. The 6-foot-5 sophomore scored a putback at the 2:25 mark to get started. He erupted for 13 points in the second period, with two buckets coming on putbacks, another from the post and one in transition.
His 3-pointer from the top of the key gave Kokomo a 27-24 lead with 3:50 to play in the first half. Kokomo would not trail again, taking a 32-28 lead into intermission on the back of 15 points from Bowen.
“This is a great win for our guys because we know Northrop is an outstanding team,” McCauley said. “To come in and play well — we’re really pleased. Erik Bowen had a career night, and was just phenomenal. I’m really proud of his effort and poise [Friday] night. His growth, his maturation throughout this season has been great, and to cap it off with a big game against an outstanding team was just tremendous.”
Post buckets from Bowen and LaBradford Sebree helped Kokomo start the second half on a quick 6-0 spurt to jump ahead 38-28 with 5:57 left in the third period. Four minutes later, another quick spurt that included a Tony Moses trey, a post deuce from Persons and a steal and breakaway layup from Balentine upped the advantage to 51-37 before Brenton Scott’s 3-pointer beat the buzzer and pulled the Bruins within 11 heading into the fourth.
Northrop got as close as five on two occasions in the fourth. Bryson Scott, a 2013 Purdue commit, scored in transition and knocked down a triple on back-to-back possessions, and Dominick Hogue scored from the post the next trip down to pull the Bruins within 57-52 with 4:35 to play.
Free throws from Armon Bridgeforth and buckets from in close by Persons and Sebree pushed the lead back out to 11 with two minutes to play. Northrop never threatened again.
Bowen’s 11 boards were a game high, while Balentine finished with 18 points and six rebounds. Sebree added 11 points to the victory, while Bridgeforth scored nine to go with three steals.
Bryson Scott scored 24 on 7 of 20 shooting to lead Northrop, and Brenton Scott added 15 on 5 of 17 firing. The Bruins struggled from deep, connecting on just 6 of 31 attempts from beyond the arc. Kokomo was 24 of 44 from the field and 4 of 9 from 3-land.
“This is what we needed. We have a little swagger now,” Balentine said. “This was a great time for us to come together and get a win to get ready for the sectional. We just have to stay poised.”