To truly appreciate the 20-win season, the school’s first playoff berth in nearly a decade, the home playoff game and all of the many other firsts that took place this season on the Independence girls basketball team, the story really has to start way back at the beginning.
On Jan. 28, 2013, the Patriots beat East Meck on a random school night.
They would not win another game for 51 straight contests when Lauren Galvani (Lewis back then), a bright-eyed former North Meck and Lees-McRae star applied for the job.
She was two years removed from graduating college after serving a season as a grad assistant and eager to join her father, North Meck legend Duane Lewis, in the high school coaching ranks.
But the Independence job was going to be a tough one. She knew it, but when they called her back, Galvani jumped at the chance.
“I think that’s why the position was open because I don’t think anyone else wanted the job,” she half-joked.
Galvani lost her first 10 games as the Patriots coach before a win over Providence snapped the program’s ugly 61-game losing streak that spanned four seasons and three coaches. Independence promptly lost their next 12 games, and there were certainly some tough times during her 1-22 rookie season.
“My dad had to talk me down just a little bit,” Galvani said. “Me getting the job and being the coach in my first year, I’m thinking that we will easily win 10 games. It can’t be that hard, but there is a process to everything. It was very frustrating at times but it was rewarding because we’ve figured it out.
“The program hadn’t won in three or four years so even I knew it was going to be hard getting one win against a team that’s not very good. We got one win that first year, and once you get one, it’s addicting.”
Laura Flynn, a starting senior guard, was on Galvani’s next team, that went on to an 8-20 record, as a freshman.
“At first, it was like we just fought for a win,” she said. “We went into games with the mentality of just keep going. Throughout the years there has been a lot of growth throughout the team.”
The team won 13 games in 2017-18, 10 games last year and now they’ve jumped up to the 20-win team that made the playoffs for the first time since the 2010-2011 season.
This year started off with a bang when junior star Braylyn Milton drained a buzzer-beating halfcourt heave to beat Galvani’s alma mater North Meck at their place.
They have been rolling ever since.
Part of the success can be found with the arrival of Trinity Thompson, a high-scoring guard who transferred from Harding. She’s averaging 15.5 points this season, taking a major weight off Milton’s shoulders.
Helping matters even more is the arrival of another guard, Averie DiBenedetto, a Providence transfer who became eligible Jan. 31. In the six games since, she’s averaged more than 10 points per game and is more of a natural point guard.
“Having them has helped me grow and expand my game,” said Milton, who still averages over 18 points and fills the stat sheet nightly. “I used to have to bring the ball up the court and guard the best player, but now we have a variety of people that can do all of those things. It makes a big difference and it gets everybody involved more than just two or three people having to do most of the work.”
The added help has paid off for the Patriots, who not only have a talented backcourt with Flynn, Milton, DiBenedetto and Thompson, but Gracie Breckeridge (5.8 points and 8.5 rebounds) and Ayanna Anderson (5.7 points and 8.7 rebounds) dominate smaller teams from the inside.
“I thought last year’s team was pretty good, but this is definitely the best team we’ve ever had here,” Galvani said.
The Patriots defeated Rocky River and Hickory Ridge for the first time this season, but their biggest win of the season to date came with a 56-50 victory over top-seeded Myers Park on Feb. 21 in the Southwestern 4A conference tournament semifinals.
“It was really big for us because it’s been so long for us since we’ve beaten Myers Park in general,” Milton said. “For us to be able to accomplish that, it means a lot. Also, it was one of our biggest goals and it is a point proven to people that anyone can be beaten and that we’re coming harder this year.”
Independence lost in the conference tournament final to Hickory Ridge, but there isn’t much to take away from a team that has done so much together.
The Patriots were scheduled to host Olympic Feb. 25 in their first playoff game in nearly a decade.
No matter how their season ends, the Patriots have been program-changers this season.
“This year has been very rewarding,” Galvani said. “The girls that are seniors now have not only worked hard this year for it, but over the past four years they’ve done a lot to get to this point and they’ve earned the right to play in the playoffs.”
As Flynn and the other five seniors lace them up for the playoff ride, she knows wherever this run ends, it will be one not soon forgotten.
“We’ve worked for this, we kept pushing and now to see us getting the wins we usually would have lost, it’s a great feeling,” Flynn said. “I know I’m leaving this place having made a difference for Independence girls basketball.”