CHARLOTTE – Independence boys basketball coach Preston Davis wasn’t very happy as he entered the halftime locker room of his team’s tilt with conference rival Porter Ridge on Jan. 4.
First off, the Patriots trailed 42-37 at the break and had just given up 18 first half points to Pirate star Cameron Stitt.
Second, Independence was coming off a pair of losses after losing 41-36 to Salesian College Preparatory, a national power ranked No. 19 in Maxpreps.com’s Xcellent 25, and 6-0-58 to Keenan, a Columbia S.C. team who is 16-1 and ranked No.1 in the state.
“I knew we were going to play a tough schedule and we have,” Davis said. “Sometimes when you lose two in a row you start to slump. I think we showed that in the first half.”
Remember, the Patriots went 31-1 and won the 4A title last season and hadn’t lost two straight games since Dec. 3, 4 and 5 of 2015 – a remarkable span of 92 games without consecutive losses.
“I told the guys at halftime, ‘Look, you have to be better. We have to be better on the defensive side of the ball where we gave up 42 points in the first half,’” Davis said. “ I told them they were on track to score 84 points and we don’t give up 80-something points a game. Defensively, they had to lock in, and in the third quarter, they did a lot better job.”
Early in the third quarter the Patriots got in a half court trap that disrupted the Pirates offensive flow, and they tightened defensively the rest of the way. The Patriots also clamped down on Stitt in the third quarter with a combination of Miles Pauldin and Tyler Harris shadowing his every move with their physicality.
Davis said the biggest change came when senior guard and Queens University of Charlotte recruit Andra’ McKee started guarding Porter Ridge’s sophomore point guard Marcus Willis.
“The key to the third quarter was when AJ said he wanted No. 12,” Davis said. “When AJ got on their point guard, he disrupted their offense. That was big.”
That, along with the hot shooting of McKee and Anthony Allen, helped spur a 14-0 run that morphed a five-point halftime lead into a 55-48 Independence lead early in the fourth quarter.
McKee was great on both sides of the court as he hit on 9-of-10 shots to score a team-high 22 points to go with five assists. Allen hit four 3-pointers, many during the third quarter, and finished with 16 points. Matt Smith was dominant inside for stretches of the game and finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds.
But the Patriots, who had done so well on Stitt in the third quarter, suddenly couldn’t stop him. The senior got to the basket at will and to the free throw line, where he made all 13 of his attempts and finished with 32 points.
Behind Stitt, the Pirates cut the lead to 65-63, but could get no closer.
Once the Pirates started cutting into the lead, Davis turned to Raja Melton, his senior point guard who didn’t play much at all in the second half.
“He wasn’t at his best today,” Davis said. “I’ve seen him play much better and I expect more out of him. He knows that. The one thing is he stayed ready. I called on him late in the game to help us finish it out and he was ready. He’ll bounce back. He’s been leading us all year.”
Milton, who averages 10.4 points per game, scored six points, but played a great floor game as he dished out eight assists without committing a turnover.
The win was big for the Patriots, who traveled to Butler on Jan. 8.
“I don’t have to worry about our guys getting up for Butler and I don’t have to worry about Butler getting up for us,” Davis said. “We’ll be ready and we’ll go at it.”