By Jim McCarter
RUSSIAVILLE – Western gave Class 2A No. 2-ranked Tipton all it wanted down the stretch Friday night before succumbing to the Blue Devils 45-40 in the final regular season game for both teams at Richard R. Rea Gymnasium.
To say neither team shot well would be an understatement. The Blue Devils hit just 16 of 48 field goal attempts (33 percent) while the Panthers struggled to hit only 13 of 48 shots (27 percent).
Western (12-8) dug itself a big hole in the first half, finding the net on just 3 of 21 attempts to find themselves trailing 30-12 after two quarters.
When Tipton’s 6-foot-5, 265-pound center Luke Shively hit a 3-pointer from deep in the left corner to open the second half scoring, the Blue Devils had a 33-12 lead and looked poised to blow away the home team. To add insult to injury the Panthers’ big man, 6-7 Ronnie Smith missed a dunk and it looked like nothing would go right for Western.
“We just couldn’t get a shot to fall in the first half,” Western coach Bart Miller said. “I thought we took good shots for the most part and just missed a lot of shots we normally make. I’m proud of our play in the second half. We could have just given up when we were down 30-12 at halftime and looked forward to the sectional, but our kids never gave up.”
Smith followed his missed dunk with buckets on Western’s next two possessions, a layup a long 3-pointer from the top of the key. Smith scored seven points and pulled down three boards in the third quarter to lead Western’s rally.
The Panthers cut Tipton’s lead to 35-25 after three quarters.
“Ronnie doesn’t miss those dunks very often,” Miller said. “It’s no surprise to me that Ronnie bounced back from that miss. He’s been a senior leader on this team all year.”
Western’s leading scorers, guards Evan Warden and Des Balentine, combined for the first five points of the fourth quarter and suddenly Tipton’s lead was just 35-30. The Blue Devils didn’t help their cause with 5-of-22 shooting in the second half.
“We came out determined to get a good start and we did,” Tipton coach Brad Dickey said. “Our team played strong and played smart in the first half, then after halftime it just went away. We lost our concentration, but we didn’t lose our toughness, which was what allowed us to win. It’s human nature to change speeds a little when you have a big lead and our kids will learn from this.
“We’ll take the positives and try to build on them heading into the tournament.”
Tipton (20-2) settled down a bit, getting a basket each from Shively and Mike Crawford to lead 41-31 with 1:54 to go, but the Panthers made one more run at them.
Tipton, again, didn’t help its own cause, hitting just 4 of 10 free throws in the final 1:04.
Austin Weaver, Warden and Balentine each hit a 3-pointer in the final 1:13 to get as close as 43-40 with :15.6 remaining. A pair of free throws by Tipton and two missed 3-pointers by Western in the waning seconds sealed the victory for the Blue Devils.
Crawford only made it halfway to his season average of 28 points per game, but still led Tipton. He also pulled down a team-high 12 rebounds. Shively also had a double-double with 11 points and 11 boards. Mason Degenkolb had 11 points, including three 3-pointers in a span of 2:14 in the first half that led the way to Tipton’s big first-half advantage.
Balentine was the only Panther to score in double figures with 13, but Warden and Smith came close with nine apiece. Austin Townsend led both teams with 15 rebounds and Smith grabbed 10 for Western.
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