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Kouts' driving force: Baker pours in 28 points as Mustangs down Westville, regain PCC Keg

KOUTS -- When Matthew Baker heads off to college, the Kouts senior will major in High Performance Motor Sports at Northern Ohio, a unique academic opportunity for students eyeing a career in car racing.

"It's a race car school," Baker said. "I've done it since I was 5. It's a three-year degree and if I want to get a Bachelor's, I can put Marketing into it, how to manage the money of a race team, the logistics behind it."

The 6-foot-1 senior guard, the remaining key piece from Kouts' Class A state runner-up team in 2021, was doing a different kind of driving Friday against Westville, attacking the basket on his way to a 28-point, 16-rebound night that carried the Mustangs past the Blackhawks, 55-51, in a key Porter County Conference game.

"Just playing with everybody a couple years ago and having the experience of playing on that team, doing great things, winning big games, seeing people do it, I know I can do it," Baker said. "It's my turn to do it. I just go and do my best to replicate it. I look forward to being out there and being the guy, I'll do what I can, but it's a lot more fun when we've got five guys scoring 10 points each. It's a lot harder to guard. There's a lot more ball movement."

The Mustangs (4-2, 2-0) overcame a six-point deficit in the third quarter, when an 11-point swing, capped by a Baker and-one putback sent Kouts to the fourth up 39-34.

"Matthew's the only one left that got minutes that year," coach Kevin Duzan said. "If he needs to score, he's going to score. If his teammates are there, they're going to do it. With the exception of Gabe (Matthes), they all had some opportunities last year. These guys just don't care. They never ask how many points they have. They's so unselfish. They move the ball. They love to play with each other because they've grown up with each other and have played together from fifth grade, sixth grade. I'll go to battle with these guys."

Westville (5-2, 2-1) answered a Japheth Anweiler 3 with eight straight points before another Baker and-one.

"Baker's going to go to Duke or something after the way we guarded him," Blackhawks coach Drew Eubank said.

The lead yo-yoed with a Matthys basket and free throw tying the game at 48. It was 51-50 Kouts when Spencer Andrews drew the first of consecutive charges against Brian Jackson. In between, Anweiler drained a baseline triple for a 53-51 Mustangs edge.

"We challenged our guys," Duzan said. "Spencer and Tristan (Balles) have been our charge takers, somebody's got to stand in there because 22's going to the basket. Those were two huge plays, plays that every coach talks about that don't show up in the box score, like the guy who bunts a guy over in baseball. Spencer stood in there with four fouls and said, run me over."

The second Jackson charge gave Kouts the ball back up two with 34 seconds left.

"Just horrible decision making," Eubank said. It's one thing to get called for a charge and then you go down and do the exact same stinking thing on the next possession. Brian's a freshman. He's going to get better. He's going to learn from his mistakes. We put him in a tough spot. We're making him do some stuff he's not ready to do. He's going to be there by the end of the year."

Kouts was then able to burn off 26 seconds Matthes was fouled with 8.1 to play.

"We're down two with 35 seconds left and we let (over) 20 seconds run off the clock before someone has the presence of mind to go foul," Eubank said. "It was just a poor effort by our guys mentally. I thought we played really poorly for 32 minutes with no toughness. We played hard, but we didn't play smart. We let a bunch of 6-foot guys get 35 offensive rebounds. I don't care about (a PCC loss) at all. I want to be playing good basketball in March."

Matthes knocked down both free throws to seal the outcome as time expired after a Westville miss.

"I think this group defended harder than any group Westville's had the last two, three years," Duzan said. "Early, their physicality, it was just how much they were challenging us to pass and catch the ball. They had us out of synch. It's more than just an offensive game. It's two evenly-matched teams. These guys worked hard all week. We had a game plan, but early on, we didn't look like we practiced all week. Matthew got going. He got to the basket. We were just fortunate at the end to make some plays and hang on. It's a great team win."

Fouls were also a bone of contention for Eubank, who was irate over a charge call on Kaden Pepper that wiped out a basket with Westville up 17-11 and gave him his third foul woth 5:23 left in the second quarter.

"There was some crazy stuff," Eubank said. "That Kaden Pepper charge was maybe the worst charge I've ever seen called in the history of basketball. You jump around and the guy doesn't even pretend to take a flop. That was horrible. But we understood how the game was going to be called. There's a reason why the Peppers had five fouls each and Javion (Ballin) had a bunch. We figured that out real quick and we didn't adjust."

Ballin scored 21, including 10 in the second quarter and Gavin Hannon added 13.

"We knew Gavin was sick and that was going to be a challenge," Eubank said. "We tried to limit his minutes early to try to help him. I still felt if we came and played the right way, we'd be in pretty good shape. I feel like it was a step back. We've got a chance to be a good basketball team, but not the way we played."

Kouts reclaimed the PCC Keg, which Westville had acquired with a 54-51 win over the Mustangs in last year's PCC tournament.

"The conference means a little something different," Duzan said. "That Keg is something special in our conference. People who don't play in the PCC don't understand what it means to these kids to have it in your school colors. They were really excited when they got to spray paint that thing. It's already black. We will get some gold added to it. We've liked taking it to the sportsmanship banquet the last four, five years. We know it's a bigger target on our back. The thing I've learned is you kind of refocus when you lose it. It gets your attention."

Eubank agreed that Keg games tend to have more hype.

"I don't think the Keg is that big a deal to our kids. It is to our community and the PCC," he said. "We get back, we put it in the closet, we get it out for the next game. It's not something we spend a lot of time and energy on. But it creates raucous environments like this and we've got to match that intensity without sacrificing intelligence. That's where we got caught up."

Kouts players celebrate claiming the PCC Keg traveling trophy after

Friday's 55-51 win over Westville. (Photo by Joe Wagner)

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