Moments after the Independence boys basketball team dismantled rival Butler, 74-58, on Feb. 15, to close its regular season and secure the Southwestern 4A conference title, the players briefly celebrated with fans who had converged on the court to commemorate the Patriots’ best season in more than a decade.
But after posing for pictures and exchanging embraces, the Patriots soon retreated to the locker room. Sure, winning the school’s first conference championship since the 2001-02 season was a nice start. But as the Class 4A state playoffs open on Monday, Feb. 25, the Patriots believe their work is just beginning.
The Patriots (20-5, 13-2) have won 16 of their last 17 games. And although they haven’t appeared in the playoffs since the 2005-06 season, they’re confident they can be a factor this year.
“We’re going to advance as far as we can,” said junior forward Deion Lane, who leads the Patriots in rebounding (seven per game) and ranks second in scoring (11.9).
“We’re not just happy to get there – our goal is to win it.”
Lane’s teammates echo his sentiment.
“Our goals have changed,” said junior guard Marcus Graves, who averages 12.1 points, 4.8 assists, three rebounds and nearly three steals per game. “We don’t just want to win the conference championship. We want to win the state tournament.”
And as one of the state’s hottest teams, the Patriots genuinely believe they can take home the crown.
“We’re really excited,” coach Preston Davis said. “The kids have been taking (their success) in stride, but I keep reminding them that there are more opportunities ahead of them. Enjoy it, but don’t dwell on it.”
Graves said the Patriots aren’t content – mainly because they know they still haven’t put together a full four quarters of good basketball. But Graves added that he believes that’s on the horizon.
And make no mistake: Despite all the euphoria they’ve generated in their breakthrough season, if the Patriots fall short of winning the school’s first state title since 1997, there will be some disappointment.
“This team has exceeded so many people’s expectations that it probably wouldn’t be a letdown to people on the outside,” said Davis, who was a center on the last Patriots’ title team. “But to me and the guys, we have a confidence that we can make a little noise in the state tournament. So I think it would be a letdown for us as a team and for our program.
“But I think if we stay focused, play as a team and take it one game at a time, we have a chance to have a special season.”
One of the Patriots’ greatest strengths is balance. This season, eight different players have led the Patriots in scoring in a game. And six players – including Tayon Gleaves (13.1 points per game), Jeffrey Dennis (8.5), Workpeh Kofa (7.1) and
Ivan Blair (6.3) – have scored at least 100 points this season, something that keeps opposing defenses on their heels.
With their team-first approach, great guard play, scoring depth and hot streak, the Patriots believe they have the ingredients for a long postseason run. And that’s something Davis said his team is taking very seriously.
“We’ve done a lot this year already, and we’re proud of where we’re at,” Davis said. “But we still want to do a little more and see what all we can accomplish. We still want to do some special things this season.”