The chants of “NCC, NCC” filled Memorial Gym late Friday night as Tayler Persons stepped to the free-throw line.
Five seconds remained — the final 5 seconds of a minute-and-a-half stretch that saw Kokomo pull away from Richmond, and put away sole possession of this year’s North Central Conference championship.
Persons’ double-double of 21 points and 10 rebounds drove the Wildkats in their 49-40 victory over the Red Devils.
The ‘Kats’ lead stood at two points, 39-37, with less than 2 minutes to play.
Erik Bowen started a 10-3 run with an inside basket with 1:18 remaining as Kokomo denied the Devils a share of their first conference crown in more than a decade.
Richmond dropped to 5-2 in the conference, finishing second for the third straight season. The past three times the Red Devils and the Wildkats have clashed in the conference finale, they’ve both had a shot at the conference crown.
“I really felt like, at some point, history kicked in a little bit,” said RHS coach Joe Luce. “We have to find a way to change that.
“We’ve done some really, really great things. I’m so proud of our players and what they’ve accomplished. We can start with a thousand excuses. The bottom line is, if you’re in a position to beat a team on their home floor for a conference championship, … you finish the job.”
Richmond led by as many as eight in the second half, taking a 28-20 advantage on a 3-pointer from Charles Hampton at 4:19 of the third quarter.
Slowly but surely, the Wildkats kept in it. They finished the quarter with a flurry, scoring the frame’s final seven points to tie 30-all heading into the fourth.
Persons knocked down a critical trey during that time as the senior stepped up when needed.
“We hit some big shots. Tayler Persons was very instrumental,” said Kokomo coach Brian McCauley. “Obviously it’s a team game. We had some guys make some big plays, but Tayler hit a big 3 here.
“We were down eight and we kind of clawed back to tie it at 30. That was really the stretch right there.”
Late turnovers hurt the Devils as the Class 4A No. 9 Wildkats (18-2) extended their lead and closed out the game from the free-throw line.
Hampton paced Richmond with 17 points, while Joel Okafor scored 12 and Abdul Shabazz netted eight with six rebounds.
Okafor grabbed a team-high seven rebounds, Reggie Jones had four and Jai Wright finished with three blocks.
Richmond was without sophomore and starting guard Davious Webster because of illness.
“Richmond is an outstanding team. The scary thing is, they’re young. They’re going to continue to get better,” McCauley said. “I want to congratulate them on their great effort and the way they battled. They’re an outstanding team.”