MATTHEWS – After an uncharacteristically shaky stretch early in the second half, star Independence senior point guard Raja Milton regrouped when it mattered most propelling the Patriots past highly regarded Carmel Christian 58-57 in overtime of a battle between two heavyweights that ended the four-game MLK Showcase on Jan. 19.
Nearly 30 minutes before the finale of the tournament tipped, fans lined both sides of the bleachers and the stage area overlooking the court was filled three or four deep. By the tip, it was an enthusiastic standing-room-only crowd that cheered both teams with both student sections loud and well represented.
The Cougars entered the game with the slight edge. They were 24-1 and ranked in most national polls – they were 28th in Maxpreps.com’s national poll and 41st in Ballislife.com’s – and had begun the season 20-0 after winning the NCISAA 2A title and handing the Patriots their only loss in Independence’s own title run a season ago.
The Cougars scored the game’s first bucket and led 5-4 early, but wouldn’t go ahead again until leading 44-42 late in the third quarter.
In the middle, the Patriots were the aggressor, turning that early 5-4 deficit into a 16-7 lead midway through the first quarter.
“Last year everyone knows it was our only loss in our state championship run, so coming in here we had a chip on our shoulder and we were ready to play,” said senior Andra’ McKee, who scored seven of his 11 points in the first half and bothered Cougar star DeAngelo Epps and Donovan Gregory defensively in the first half. “We sat down in the locker room without the coaches before the game and we said we were going to go out and win this game. We all put each other on our backs.”
Milton had 10 first half points to lead the Patriot scoring, but had four turnovers as well.
After another critical turnover early in the third quarter helped fuel an already fired up Cougar teams, Independence coach Preston Davis pulled Milton and turned to sharpshooter Anthony Allen, the only sub the Patriots would use in their tight, six-man rotation.
“I knew I had to stay focused for when my time would come,” Milton said. “I was up and down throughout the game with turnovers and stuff, but I had to keep my mind in it.”
But, early in the third quarter, it seemed Carmel Christian and their collection of Division 1 stars would have their way.
The Cougars came out of the halftime locker room playing inspired basketball, and within three minutes had already cut a 10-point lead to a tenuous 38-36 Patriot advantage.
“With the exception of a few positions we did a lot better job of executing our stuff in the first half,” Davis said. “We didn’t turn the ball over as much, we tried to focus on getting great shots and we did that. In the second half, we didn’t do that in the beginning.”
The Patriots held off the Cougar run for awhile, but Carmel Christian took a 46-42 lead through three quarters and seemed to be starting to take control.
“I told them before the game started that basketball is a game of runs,” Davis said. “That’s the last thing I told them before warmups. I told them that they may make a run, but we were going to make runs, too. When we were up 10 in the first quarter, we couldn’t get too high. When then came out firing in the second half – and we knew they were going to do that – we didn’t panic. I’m proud of our guys for staying the course.”
The Cougars opened the fourth quarter by standing outside of the key holding the ball for over three minutes of the eight minute final period in a stall tactic, but the Patriots eventually challenged them defensively, cut into their lead and tied the game at 49 with 24 seconds to play.
Carmel Christian held for the final shot, but Epps, the standout College of Charleston commit, missed a pull-up jumper at the elbow that could have won it for the Cougars.
In overtime, it was all Milton. He scored all nine of the Patriots points and finished with a game-high of 19. He made a number of acrobatic shots in the lane including a driving left-handed scoop that would give the Patriots their final 58-57 margin. Carmel Christian had two looks at it late, but squandered those chances as the final buzzer sounded.
“Raja is a senior captain and he’s been through the fire,” Davis said. “He didn’t have a good stretch in the second half and I pulled him. Most kids might shut down, but my kids aren’t built like that. He stepped up late, he bounced back and responded.”
Milton added four rebounds and three assists to his 19 points, McKee finished with 11 points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals, Matt Smith had 12 points and seven rebounds and Miles Pauldin added nine rebounds and played consistent defense in the paint.
Myles Pierre and Gregory led the Cougars with 17 each.
The win was a big one for the Patriots, who not only improve to 12-3 overall but also opened a lot of eyes as they avenged their only loss of last season.
“We’re a championship-level program and they are a championship-level program,” Davis said. “This is a big win, and it would have been so either way. The atmosphere was great, the kids competed and battled and we even got a couple of free minutes of overtime. I’m just proud we were able to find a way to pull it out.”
For McKee, the steady Queens University of Charlotte commit who seems to do everything well on the floor every night, it’s validation that while this team is much different than the one the Patriots won it all with last season, it’s still one that is set on defending.
“I think we’re deeper than we were last year,” he said. “But I just feel like anyone who steps on the court with us is going to have a problem this year.”