BOURBON -- Two years ago, when Kouts played in the Class A Triton Regional, Spencer Andrews attended the games as a fan.
"I was part of the pep block here," the Mustangs senior said. "I was on the JV team, but I didn't play too often. I still supported the team. Seeing all the fans here was incredible."
Andrews returned to Triton on Saturday, this time as part of a Mustangs squad that, like him, has exceeded expectations this season.
"I love being the underdog," he said. "My junior year, I was kind of that spark, shooting outside to get the team going. Sometimes I'd get in, sometimes I didn't get in. It depends on the game. I knew my role. I was still excited to be a part of the team. It's my first year, finally getting to show what I can do on the floor. We knew coming into the sectional that Morgan (Township) was a great team. Winning that, we were like why stop?"
Kouts (17-9) didn't, topping Bethany Christian 44-40 to advance to the semistate behind Andrews' 18 points.
"Spencer was a backup last year," coach Kevin Duzan said. "He's by far our most improved. He's the one kid who said, coach, we're not done. He kept the seniors going in the right direction. He didn't get in foul trouble, which was huge. We're so much better with him in. He's come a long way and he's taken over that leadership role, and I'm OK with that."
Andrews provided an offensive spark in a game in need of a scoring lift, recording 10 points in the fourth quarter to help the Mustangs create some elbow room in a tight battle.
"It was hard to get moving to the basket," he said. "They're a great team defensively. We knew we had to utilize the big guy (Justin Hochstedler). Considering we're undersized, we knew we were a little quicker and could get around him, utilize that pick and roll, get him isolated with somebody, put them in that pressure spot, make him foul. I felt we had a great second half. We just had to lock down on defense more and rebound. We wanted it more than anybody and we got it done."
It wasn't looking that way early. Kouts trailed 12-5 after a quarter and managed just 12 first-half points.
"We knew we were better than that." Andrews said. "We knew it's only 14-12, we're still in this game. We could say we got held to 12, but they got held to 14. You're in that same boat, thinking the same thing. Matt (Baker)'s the only one who's ever played in a game like this. You're always nervous in games like this. It's everybody's first time. Once we settled in, we played great basketball. We've just got to come out and play our basketball."
On the plus side, Bethany only managed a single bucket in the second quarter, chugging to the break up 14-12.
"I just told them we couldn't be any worse than we were the first half," Duzan said. " We were just nervous. Everybody says, well, they were there in '21. One guy (Matthew Baker) and the rest of them were along for the ride. We just talked about being a little more patient. Once we settled down, we played better. We told them, I don't care what the score is, as long as we've got one more than them."
Kouts took its first lead since 4-2 when Andrews scored on a drive after Japheth Anweiler's 3 to make it 22-20.
"We wanted to run hard and run often, but they were tough," Duzan said. "They were more deliberate on offense than I thought they might be. That just slows the whole game way down. It was more about us doing what we do. They weren't doing anything to us. We wanted to isolate (Hochstedler) and we got him going to the basket a couple times," Duzan said. "We really thought once we got the lead, that made a big difference. "
Freshman Colten Hamann backed Andrews with six fourth-quarter points.
"I really thought Colton came in and gave us a big lift," Duzan said. "He's been one of those guys whose minutes have come and gone based on situations and opponents. He's kind of a slasher, get to the basket kind of guy. He was up to the challenge. The kids started to settle down and we made free throws down the stretch. We handled the ball pretty well. We play five guards. How can you not take care of the ball for the most part?"
The Mustangs hit just two 3-pointers, but that was two more than Bethany, which came in averaging over six a game and shooting 39 percent from the arc.
"We focused on their two shooters all week, (Tyson) Chupp and (Jayden) Schlabach," Duzan said. "I told them we can not leave them. We will help off of (Carter) Miller. We've got to guard the other two guys as tough as we can. I thought (Tristan) Ballas on Chupp did about as well as he could for the number of shots he's going to shoot and Anweiler, we didn't give Slabaugh a clean look most of the night and when we did, he didn't hit them. (Hochstedler) hurt us a little inside, but we could live with that as long as they weren't hitting 3s. I thought we might score a little more, but I told them if they don't hit 3s, they won't score well and we can keep them in the 30s."
That's quite a contrast to the 29-3 state runner-up of 2021 that averaged 75 points a game.
"People may look at the score and say, they're not very good," Duzan said. "That's OK. This group is special to me because nobody gave 'em a chance from the get-go. We thought that (20-21) group would do it and they did. It's been our focus with these seniors the last three weeks. I put it on them. I said, this is it, when you're done, you're done. As long as you want to keep playing, let's keep playing, buy in and do what we ask. I'm just proud of this group because, A, we weren't supposed to win the sectional, B, we weren't supposed to be in the regional, and C, we definitely weren't supposed to be in the semistate, and here we are. We live to see another week."
Kouts will play Marquette Catholic in Saturday's semistate at Lafayette Jefferson.
"My best friend, I talked to him this week, he said, you've got to admit this is one of your better coaching jobs," Duzan said. "I'm not a great coach, I'll be the first to admit that. Talent makes everybody look better. He knows sometimes you've got to really build your kids up and get them to believe when they're not the most talented that they can still overcome. I'm super excited for these kids to have this opportunity."
He's not the only one.
"I just love basketball. I love playing for the fans and your team," Andrews said. "I'm glad to give back to the community, to play great basketball and get this win, to give them something to be happy about. We knew we could get going and bring back a regional title. It doesn't get better than this. For now, we're going to celebrate, and it's back to work on Monday."
Kouts defeated Bethany Christian 44-40 on Saturday to win a Class A Triton Regional and advance to the Lafayette Jefferson Semistate. (Photo courtesy of Kouts Athletics)