MATTHEWS – Butler made free throws when it mattered most against Ragsdale in the Western Regional semifinals of the Class 4A Girls Playoffs.
Michaela Lane and Payton Sutton hit a pair of free throws in the final 23.8 seconds as the Bulldogs punched their ticket to the Final Four with a 62-56 victory over the Tigers on March 5. Butler (28-2) faces West Forsyth (26-3) March 9 in Hickory with a trip to the Class 4A State Championship Game on the line.
Butler didn’t score a field goal the final 3:30 of the game and the Bulldogs missed the front end of two one-and-ones in the final minute, but Lane and Sutton delivered in the clutch. Lane gave Butler a 60-54 lead with two free throws with 23.8 seconds left, and Sutton put the game out of reach with two free throws for a 62-54 lead with just 16 seconds left.
“We tried our best to give it to them by not making our free throws,” Butler coach Mark Sanders said. “But when we had to have them, we made them.”
Butler also came up big on defense when it mattered most. Ragsdale made just one field goal in the final 3:52 of the game, and that was a layup with just nine seconds left. Butler forced three turnovers and Lane came up with two blocks late as the Bulldogs held on.
“We told our girls to stay calm, and that is what they did,” Sanders said. “We knew Ragsdale was capable of making runs, and we did a good job defensively. Lane was huge down the stretch with blocks and rebounds.”
Ragsdale led 33-32 at halftime, but Butler closed out the third period with a 9-1 run for a 49-42 lead going to the final eight minutes. Lane started the run with a short jumper for a 42-41 lead, and the junior then converted a three-point play for a 47-41 lead with 1:54 left in the third. Senior Hailey Nance then ended the run with a layup for the seven-point lead.
Lane led Butler with 15 points while Nance and Micahla Funderburk added 12 and 11 points, respectively. Sutton finished with nine points after making five of six free throws in the game.
“At the end of the day, our playmakers made plays when they needed to,” Sanders said.
Nance scored all 10 of her 12 points in the second half, including three consecutive layups in the fourth period that kept the Tigers at bay.
“We told them all week that their press was going to be upfront and once we broke the press, we knew we would get a two-on-one or a three-on-one,” Sanders said. “We had to finish those and Nance finished those with layups.”
Nance credited her teammates with beating the Ragsdale press and getting her the ball for three easy baskets.
“They were not guarding me like they should have been guarding me, so I had to show them why they needed to guard me,” Nance said. “I had three consecutive baskets, and then they started guarding me and that opened up some other players. That is what won the game for us.”
Butler will take a 13-game winning streak into the Final Four and the Bulldogs have not lost a game away from home this season. West Forsyth has won its last 15 games.
“We are going on to the next round and we are going to give it our best shot and see what happens,” Sanders said. “I know West Forsyth has some really good shooters and they have a really good point guard. It’s going to be a tough game.”