KIOWA — Just one starter graduated following Kiowa’s runner-up finish at the 2014 Class A state championship.

Kiowa’s returning starters showed they still have the mix of high-speed defense and physical offense that made them so successful last year.

Veterans Tristian McMath, Brice Smith and Brycen Overton all scored at least 15 points, helping the Cowboys beat the Rock Creek Mustangs 62-51 in Saturday’s season-opener in Kiowa.

“They’re better this year than they were last year,” Rock Creek coach Rob Frederick said of the Cowboys.

The Mustangs struck first Saturday, but Kiowa responded with a strong first quarter that forced Rock Creek to play from behind the rest of the game. Shay Calvert, Kiowa’s fourth veteran starter, kicked things off by hitting Smith for a game-tying layup.

Kiowa forced a turnover on defense, then McMath found Overton for a 3-pointer and a 5-2 lead. Smith’s layup off a pass from McMath pushed the lead to 7-3, Kiowa blocked Rock Creek’s next shot, then McMath got it to Grayson Griffin for a jumper.

Griffin was the only starter Saturday not back from last year. That basket would be his only 2 points Saturday, but Griffin still proved crucial as a facilitator for the rest of Kiowa’s scorers.

“As a sophomore starting in a big ballgame, I thought he handled himself fine,” Kiowa coach Keith Quaid said of Griffin. “I thought he showed a lot of composure. He did what I asked him to do. He’ll just get better; his roof’s pretty high.”

Rock Creek’s Matt Converse hit a 3-pointer following Griffin’s basket, then Bronson Burns put back an offensive rebound to make it a 1-point game. The Mustangs would never get closer, however, as McMath turned a steal into a crossover layup, then McMath used a defensive rebound to go on the fastbreak and eventually find Calvert for a 3-pointer.

Jakob Echelle’s steal led to a Smith basket off an offensive rebound. Smith then came up with a steal and got it to Calvert for a fastbreak layup.

Overton’s 3-pointer made it 21-8 Kiowa at the end of the first quarter. Rock Creek outscored Kiowa in the second quarter, but Kiowa used a strong third quarter to put the game away.

“They executed like a bunch of seniors,” Quaid said.

“Had two good quarters. I thought we executed pretty well, and then we played good defense those two quarters and rebounded better.”

Smith began Kiowa’s third-quarter scoring with a jumper off a pass from Overton. Calvert’s pass to Smith led to another Cowboys basket, then Overton stole a pass and turned it into a layup and a 40-25 lead.

Smith later got the ball to McMath for a 3-pointer. McMath scored a game-high 19 points.

“We’re, in my mind, another state-tournament contender,” McMath said.

“We’ve scrimmaged a lot of good teams already, and I think we’re in pretty good shape. I think we just need to get a little mentally stronger.”

McMath went on to score 9 of Kiowa’s final 11 points in the third quarter, including off a crossover dribble with five seconds left that put Kiowa up 53-33. Rock Creek went with a full-court defense in the fourth quarter and pulled to within 11, but with about four minutes left the Cowboys switched to a pass-heavy offense designed to run down the clock.

The Mustangs just couldn’t get enough possessions to mount a real comeback.

“When you’re that good, you usually close the door, and that’s what they did on us,” Frederick said.

“If you get down 10 with five minutes left, honestly most of the time it’s over. They have guards that handle the ball, and they can just delay the game and milk the clock.”

All of Kiowa’s scoring came from its starters. Smith scored 18, Overton scored 16 and Calvert scored 7.

“We just kind of got a little too relaxed (in the fourth), too comfortable with the lead,” Smith said.

“When I got the ball inside, they just collapsed on me. They had a lot of good back-side defense.”

Rock Creek had offensive success at times, but the Mustangs never consistently strung together points. They’d score a couple baskets in a row, then miss or turn the ball over for the next few possessions and let the Cowboys pull a little farther away.

Burns led Rock Creek with 15 points. Converse scored 13, and McKlaine Marquez scored 11.

Kiowa, now 1-0, starts its Pitt 8 Conference schedule today in Stuart. The Cowboys won the Pitt 8 Conference last year.

Contact Matt Goisman at mgoisman@mcalesternews.com.