KOUTS | It wasn't a storybook ending Wednesday night for Kouts and retiring coach Marty Gaff.
The Mustangs dropped a 56-49 decision to Gary 21st Century in the opening round of the Class A Sectional on their home court. Gaff is stepping away after 30 years as head coach.
"It was pretty emotional in the locker room," he said. "I've had 30 years of great guys and this was a great group. Those kids have been with me a while. It's hard, but it's time to move on."
The Mustangs (19-3) eventually adjusted to the Cougars' speed early in the game and recovered to lead 28-27 at the break. They built their lead to 40-32 late in the third quarter after Cody Nelson followed a nifty reverse layup with a 3-pointer.
But 21st Century (13-7) dialed up the defensive pressure, forcing 10 Kouts turnovers in the fourth quarter. And the Mustangs made only 3-of-11 field goals that period, part of a dismal 18-of-55 (32.7 percent) overall performance.
"We did not shoot well and we lost our composure a little in the fourth quarter," Gaff said. "They put pretty good pressure on us and we lost a little bit of our composure. We just needed a couple things to go our way and they didn't.
"They can come after you; there's no doubt about that."
Gaff used just five players. Nelson led the way with 17 points, Max Everaert had 13 and Andrew Birky 11. Junior 6-foot-7 center Matt Stewart was held to six points but grabbed seven rebounds and blocked four shots.
The Cougars were led by Dantrell Hurt and Louis Brown, each with 14 points, and Mykel Mayes with 13 points and four steals.
"We played 10 guys and they only played five," Gary 21st Century coach Rodney Williams said. "I knew our depth would get to them. The fourth quarter went our way. Our guys never quit and they never stopped believing.
"We've been practicing for this game since we lost to them last year."
The Cougars will face Morgan Township (6-14) in Friday's semifinals. The Cherokees held off Gary Lighthouse 66-62 in the first game.
Morgan shot 72.9 percent (27-of-37) from the floor and held on at the finish to beat Lighthouse (11-11).
Morgan coach Eric Braden was shocked at that statistic, primarily due to his team's 19 turnovers.
But when the Cherokees beat the Lions' press, they converted it into points.
"They came out in the second half in a 1-2-1-1 press or something and we were having trouble breaking that," Braden said. "But any time we got the ball in the middle, it seemed like good things happened."
Senior forward Ryan Klikus was plenty good for the Cherokees, finishing with 30 points and 10 rebounds. He scored on a variety of layups and short jumpers, and converted 6-of-8 free throws in the fourth quarter to keep his team in the lead.
"He's our offensive glue," Braden said.
Morgan led 29-22 at the break, but Lighthouse cut it to 33-32 midway through the third on back-to-back layups from Thomas Smith. But Morgan ended the quarter on a 15-6 run, with Tyler Abbett swishing the Cherokees' only 3-pointer of the game at the third-quarter buzzer for a 50-40 advantage.
Chase Braden added 14 points for Morgan, while freshman Jake Koselke added 10 points and six rebounds. For Lighthouse, Ben Jackson scored 17 points and grabbed nine rebounds, Taj Edwards had 13, Treshaun Sams 12 and Thomas Smith 10.