By CJ PETERS
For JP on Preps
WESTVILLE — It gave up a season-high 62 points in Friday’s game, but for a team that Morgan Township coach Kevin Krieger said has been ‘fun to watch’ amid a 13-game winning streak, it was just another opportunity to prove how the Cherokees can win a game – by scoring a season-high.
Leading from the opening basket until Westville tied in the fourth, Class A No. 4 Morgan turned things up a notch, out-scoring the Blackhawks by 16, including the final 12, in an 80-62 Porter County Conference win.
Keagen Holder, Jack Wheeler and Jaiden Spratley scored all but two of the points for the Cherokees, who kept ‘The Keg’ and went unbeaten in PCC round-robin play for the second straight year.
“This team this year, every challenge that’s been thrown our way, we don’t blink and have always risen to the occasion, and it is a joy to coach,” Krieger said. “These guys keep their poise. Westville put about four runs on us and kept cutting the lead down and we just never panicked and all the credit goes to them, they play well as a team.
“Every game there’s someone that steps up and (this) was a good example of that. Jack Wheeler stepped up at the end and made a couple of huge plays, Keagen has been steady throughout the season, Spratley has come up with some huge shots when we need it and along with Bryant Ricke’s defense and Hayden Grieger’s rebounding, they have been lights out here these last two months.”
Holder, a 6-foot-2 junior wing and the team’s leading scorer at 17.3 per game, opened the scoring with an and-one on an offensive rebound. He poured in 15 in the first quarter and went on to rack up a game- and season-best 32 points, knocking down 10-of-11 from the line, and adding 10 boards for his second double-double.
“Kaleb (Pepper) didn’t have his wind for whatever reason and I felt like if he could have given us 30 minutes, it’s a little different,” Westville coach Drew Eubank said. “Javion (Ballin) athletically can guard him, but he’s not used to guarding guys like that and I think that can get to him a little bit too much and it gets him caught up. Keagen is a really solid player and if you try to take the ball from him, he’ll make you pay, and if you don’t sit in a stance and make him work, he’ll make you pay, and he made us pay.
“You’re gonna give stuff up because they put you in positions where you gotta help off Holder and they’re really smart with how they do that. It’s one of those things where we’re gonna try and stop penetration and let another guy beat you, and they beat us.”
Morgan (18-3, 7-0) hasn’t lost since December 29th. It has two games remaining with hopes of reaching 16 in a row and then some.
“We’ve been able to win games several different ways during this streak,” Krieger said. “Tonight, we had to outscore the team and usually it’s our defense that sets the tone so we then we can get in transition, but they flip-flopped on us, but we did a really good job. Heading into the state tournament, it’s always good to be able to win more than one way and these kids have done a super job in developing.
“We are getting everybody’s best shot, and it helps our team grow and become closer because we gotta fight through every game.”
Wheeler, who came in averaging 12, also scored a season-high with his 28, including 10 in the second and fourth quarters. Spratley, who had 18 points, knocked down the 3-ball that keyed an 11-2 run in the fourth after Westville had tied it at 54.
“It was all momentum,” Wheeler said. “They gained a lot of it, and it was back and forth and back and forth, but it seemed like at the end the momentum was all there with us and it pushed us to the win. For me, it was all about confidence, my dad has always told me you gotta have confidence, whether it’s in my shooting or my finishing – and I think that’s what did it for me.
“When you have a team like ours with three or four guys that can score, it’s really hard for the opposing team to play defense on that, especially with ball movement. We’re trying to get everybody involved, even our bench guys, and not just this game but the past games, they’ve played such a big role. I think everybody stepping up and playing their roles like that is gonna go a long way for us.”
For Eubank, a lot of Westville’s demise was of its own volition. It saw a similar game play out in its 55-38 loss in the PCC tournament championship on Jan. 21.
“It’s weird to say, but I thought we were really good defensively except for complete and utter breakdowns, when we didn’t screw up an assignment or just lose our guy,” he said. “Probably nine, 12 points of just flat breakdowns, 8-of-15 at the line, missed five or six fastbreak layups that we’re too worried about trying to avoid contact or trying to make a move instead of focusing on scoring. You can look at all that stuff and say it doesn’t make up 18 points, but if you make free throws and layups, it never gets anywhere near there.
“I thought we forced them to play our game and a game they’re uncomfortable with, but they did a better job with it. They do a good job of packing the lane, and you have to make shots. We were 6-of-24 from 3. If you can’t knock down open shots, they can pack the lane.”
Knocking down four of the six treys, Ballin scored a team-high 24 points to go with 10 rebounds and five steals. While Ballin had nine in the second, Kaden Pepper had 10 of his 15 first-half points, but picked up his fourth foul with two minutes until halftime.
“It’s a lot tougher to bang inside when you're worried about a flop and a call, which didn’t happen tonight, but unfortunately Kaden’s dealt with that a lot this year,” Eubank said. “Kaden gets officiated differently than anybody else in our league. Couple plays where he’s hit in the arm and it’s not a foul and you tell him to play through it and not worry about it, but it’s hard to tell a 16, 17-year old that you’re gonna be officiated differently.”
Pepper finished with 19 before fouling out with 4:13 to go in and Westville (15-7, 3-3) trailing by six.
“You want him to keep working and force the action and understand that everybody is doing their best jobs and stuff gets missed, but I think he’s at a frustration level that I’ve never really seen out of a player, and I understand it,” Eubank said. “Every game outside of maybe three, he’s asking, ‘what am I doing wrong?’ I don’t wanna tell him to stop playing basketball or to be a shooter, you want him to do his thing and just hope at some point things work out in his favor.
“It sucks because he's a really good kid. Hopefully it’ll break his way eventually, but it’s just not happening right now.”
Freshman Brian Jackson had 11 points with a pair of 3s off the bench for Westville, which closes out its regular and conference season with South Central on Tuesday.
“There were still a lot of positives, Eubank said. “We just gotta keep moving forward and come out Tuesday ready to play and then get ourselves ready for the tournament.”