MATTHEWS – This is the fifth straight season the Independence boys basketball team has recorded 20 or more wins, but this team is far from finished.
Sort of a work in progress to start the season, the Patriots stumbled some out of the gate, but they’ve recovered in a big way.
They’ve now won 19 of the past 22 games and seem to keep playing better and better.
They pulled out a tough, hard-fought 52-41 win Feb. 29 over Hough at home to move on to the Great Eight of the NCHSAA finals.
Anthony Allen scored 16 points to lead the way while Nygell Verdier added 15.
Verdier is sort of the epitome of what this team has become.
As a newcomer last season from Charlotte Secondary, Verdier knew he wasn’t going to play much.
“Since I was a kid, I’ve been waiting for a time like this where I can play my role,” he said. “I’ve been a star since I was a kid, but once I came here I understood it was a championship team. I knew I wasn’t going to be part of the plan, but coach talked to me and told me my senior year is going to be my breakout if I kept working and playing hard.”
Verdier has done that. The 6-foot-5 wing has upped his scoring from 2.6 points per game last year to 13.2 this year while also contributing over five rebounds and nearly three assists per game.
Verdier played nearly the whole game against Hough, which got a little chippy.
After Jalen Hinton hit a 3-pointer to break a late tie, Hough’s Nathan Chambers got a technical foul that blew open a close game and sent the Patriots on to the fourth round.
“We beat them at the Christmas tournament at East Lincoln by 16 and I’m sure they were confident because they didn’t play as well as they’d hoped, they missed some shots but they’re shooting the ball better,” Independence coach Preston Davis said. “They’re a tough team, but I’m proud of my kids. They kept their composure and didn’t overly panic when they tied it up.”
The Patriots have played two home playoff games after their bye, but with the win, they’re going to face No. 1 seed North Meck (28-1), who defeated the Patriots 79-55 in both teams’ first game of the season on Nov. 19.
But the players know so much has changed since then and in both locker rooms.
The Patriots are definitely a different team, although they won’t forget the feeling the last time they left North Meck.
“We understand what they did to us the first game of the season, so we’re going to keep that in our minds and we’re going to go play our game,” Verdier said. “We don’t have anything to lose. Everybody has been sleeping on us all season, and it feels good to shock the world. I know we didn’t start good, but we worked hard and coach talked us through to get to where we are now.”
The Patriots are playing with house money. For a team that struggled to find itself and started so slowly with a 2-4 record, this team has absolutely nothing to lose as they travel to North Meck on March 3, after Matthews-Mint Hill Weekly’s press deadline.
And that’s exactly how they’re going to approach their next game.
“It’s going to be a tough game,” Davis said. “They’re the No. 1 team in the state for a reason. We know we’re going to have to go on the road and probably play the perfect game for us to pull off the upset. We’re going to go in there and compete, but we’re excited for the opportunity. There are only four other schools in our half of the state playing, so we’re absolutely where we want to be. Let’s see if we can keep it going.”