MINT HILL – Before the season started, Independence basketball coach Preston Davis said the Patriots would be tested early and often.
After winning the Class 4A state championship last season with a 31-1 record, Davis loaded up the nonconference schedule with games against powerhouse programs from Georgia, South Carolina, California and Pennsylvania in addition to in-state powers like Carmel Christian. And that is on top of playing in a conference that is competitive from top-to-bottom.
“We have to understand that this is going to be a different journey for this team,” Davis said back in November. “We are playing a loaded schedule and we are going to be tested. We may not have the same record we had last year, but it will get us ready for conference play and it will definitely get us ready for the state playoffs.”
Indy has been tested often and the Patriots are again primed to make another deep postseason run. And a 12-day stretch in January has been a case in point. Starting with a 65-24 win over rival Rocky River on Jan. 18, the Patriots played six games in 12-days, going 5-1 in the process after defeating East Meck on Jan. 29.
In between, Indy defeated then nationally-ranked Carmel Christian 58-57 in overtime before taking sole possession of first place in the Southwestern 4A Conference with a 42-38 victory over Myers Park on Jan. 22.
The only blemish during their recent hectic stretch of games was a 61-50 loss to Greater Atlanta Christian at the Peachtree Corners Invitational in Norcross, Ga. on Jan. 26. GAC is ranked No. 1 in Class 3A and No. 9 overall in Georgia, which has seven different classifications.
Davis said the recent stretch will benefit the Patriots in the state tournament. To reach the Class 4A Championship Game for a second straight season means that Indy would need to win five games in 12 days.
“The playoffs are a lot of basketball in a short time as well,” Davis said. “We have been through that and you can figure out how to manage that, how to try find ways to rest guys. You are prepared mentally and physically for it. The good thing is that we have played high-quality teams in that stretch. Obviously in the playoffs, the deeper you go the quality of teams gets better.”
Indy led GAC 36-26 early in the third quarter but turnovers and defensive lapses allowed the Spartans to rally for the win.
“It’s like I told the guys, we had some defensive letdowns,” Davis said. “We weren’t consistent throughout the entire game. When you play a good team like that, and they are a defending state champion as well, they are not going to get rattled and quit playing. We had some key breakdowns, and that really hurt us.”
Independence now stands at 15-4 overall and 9-0 in the league, a game ahead of Myers Park (8-1) heading into a game Feb. 1 at Porter Ridge (4-5). Indy, which has five conference games left, hosts Myers Park on the last game of the regular season on Feb. 15 with the conference title possibly on the line.
“We now have to take care of business in our state,” Davis said. “We have to prepare for what is in front of us now. We have to be a little more consistent. We have to take better care of the basketball and we can’t do things that will hurt our chances. The guys are working hard and we are fighting to get better every day.”
Indy senior Raja Milton has been especially impressive during the recent run. Milton scored all nine of the Patriots points in overtime against Carmel Christian while finishing with 19 points. Milton then scored nine of his game-high 14 points in the fourth quarter against Myers Park on Jan. 22 before making 6-of-7 3-pointers in a 19-point effort in the Patriots’ 66-55 win over Hickory Ridge on Jan. 24.
Milton said after the win at Myers Park the Patriots enjoy facing top-notch competition and that experience will be helpful come the postseason.
“We get after it in practice and we prepare for these types of moments,” Milton said. “We are always prepared.”