CHARLOTTE – The Independence girls basketball team came into its home showdown with all of the momentum and a chance to score a rare win over its biggest rivals.
But Butler pulled out a 64-51 win to tie the Patriots for second place in the Southwestern 4A and make a bold statement to the league.
“We’re going to be in the middle of it, I guarantee that,” Butler coach Mark Sanders said following the game. “We have a bunch of fighters, and they’re going to fight together until the end.”
That statement came true in so many ways in the Jan. 7 battle that tied Butler (7-7 overall) and Independence (10-3) at 3-1 in league play, just one game back of Myers Park, who plays at Independence on Jan. 17.
Neither team scored for nearly two minutes to start the game before Trinity Thompson scratched for Independence, who would take an 8-5 lead after the first quarter.
The game remained tight until midway through the second when senior guard Ashlynn Dotson connected on consecutive 3-pointers that turned a 13-12 Independence lead into an 18-13 advantage the Bulldogs would never surrender.
From there, Butler built a six-point halftime advantage with Dotson (13 points) hitting four 3-pointers in the quarter.
At the half, both teams had done a great job of taking the other team’s star out of the game. Independence’s Braylyn Milton, who came in averaging over 21 points per game, had three points at the half and finished with eight.
Butler’s Michaela Lane only had five points at the break, well off her 16.1 scoring average.
But the Bulldogs started to get it going in the second half, with point guard Payton Sutton (16 points, seven rebounds and five steals) controlling the game and the tempo, rallying Butler to an 11-2 run that put Independence in a 42-25 hole.
Lane, who finished with 21 points, 18 rebounds and four assists, asserted herself early in the second half, finished the game at the free-throw line by hitting six straight down the stretch.
Noura Aboutaleb turned into the team’s defensive stopper guarding Milton one-on-one through three quarters before switching her attention to Thompson, who Aboutaleb held to two points in the final quarter. Aboutaleb also scored eight points.
“They all played well because they all have a role to play and they played their roles and did what we asked them to do,” said Sanders, who uses a seven-player roster. “That’s kind of what we’ve been doing all year with our personnel. We’ve had some injuries here and some letdowns there, but I think we’ve started to figure it out at the right time.”
With all going so well, it seemed like the Patriots may be out of it, but they came storming back with a 19-4 run fueled by senior Trinity Thompson, who scored a game-high 24 points to go with five rebounds and four steals.
Independence eventually cut the 17-point deficit to 46-44 early in the fourth quarter after a 19-4 run, but it was too much Lane and Sutton down the stretch.
“We held (Lane) off for as long as we could,” Independence coach Lauren Galvani said. “They have a really good point guard and put ourselves in that position where we were down 16 or 17 points. We made a good comeback, but we shouldn’t have been there in the first place.”
Thompson and Ayanna Anderson (11 points and five rebounds) led the scoring on an off night for Milton, who finished 2-of-14 from the field.
It was a missed opportunity for the Patriots, who are off to their best start in at least the past decade.
But it was also a good sign to be in a game with Butler, who has won 27 straight games in the series dating back to Feb. 9, 2007, when the Patriots last beat the Bulldogs.
“I told them we’ll have to learn from this,” said Galvani, who took over a program that had lost 51 consecutive games upon her arrival prior to the 2015-16 season. “I think it came down to not being able to box out and get some of those rebounds because they got a lot of second-chance shots.”