MORGAN TWP. | Staying undefeated in the Porter County Conference was the main objective for Kouts on Thursday night.
The fact that doing so meant gaining a measure of revenge over Morgan Township for an earlier loss was icing on the cake.
Jake Bekelya scored a game-high 26 points and Cody Nelson added 18 as the Mustangs improved to 6-0 in the PCC with a 68-59 road win over the Cherokees.
Bekelya helped ice the game by knocking down all 10 of his free throws in the second half, including four in the final minute.
“I’m a drive-first type of player. I was confident that if I couldn’t beat my man to the basket, I’d be able to get fouled and get to the line,” Bekelya said. “This was big for us because we haven’t lost a regular-season conference game (to Morgan Township) since my freshman year. This keeps us undefeated.”
While Bekelya and Nelson combined for 44 points, the star of the game may have been Kouts reserve junior Nathan Ballesteros.
The 5-foot-7 guard knocked down two 3-pointers in the first half and then added a key defensive stop with just over a minute remaining. The Cherokees had whittled down a double-digit deficit to 61-59 and had the ball when Ballesteros poked the ball away from Morgan junior Tyler Abbett with 1:03 remaining.
The Mustangs (12-2) iced the game with seven free throws in the final minute.
“Nathan is our defensive specialist,” Nelson said. “It’s almost to the point where I expect him to go out there and get those types of steals.”
Morgan coach Eric Braden knew that Ballesteros was a defensive ace, but the 3-point shooting is what altered the game from Braden’s perspective.
“We knew we had to key on (Bekelya and Nelson), then Ballesteros comes out and hits two 3-pointers,” Braden said. “We weren’t necessarily guarding him at first and then once he hits those shots, now that changes what we have to do defensively.”
Chase Braden led the Cherokees (9-7, 3-2) with 22 points while Jake Koselke added 18 points and nine rebounds. The Cherokees came into the game having beaten Kouts 45-43 in the PCC tournament on Jan. 22.
“This was a great learning experience for our young team,” Braden said. “We just have to learn how to take the right shots and make the right plays when the game is on the line. We were never able to tie the game or take the lead late and I think that would’ve given us a lot of confidence.”
Kouts has four remaining non-conference games before wrapping up the regular-season with the PCC finale at LaCrosse on Feb. 28. The Mustangs haven’t lost a regular-season conference game in nearly 25 months.