Nearly a month ago, on Dec. 12, Myers Park beat Butler High 77-72 at home. Butler was No. 3 in the Observer’s Sweet 16 poll, and the Bulldogs were coming off a 2016-17 season when they reached the N.C. 4A state semifinals. They were starting a 2017-18 season expecting to challenge for a state championship.
That game, as much as anything else, changed the course of the Mustangs’ season.
Myers Park has won six of seven games since then, and as conference play resumes Friday, the Mustangs are in the middle of the league championship race in the Southwestern 4A.
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“We had a nice celebration after that (Butler win),” Mustangs coach Scott Taylor said. “It gave our kids a little bit of a understanding that they can do this, that they can compete with the teams at the top of our league. We needed one of those to know that, going forward now, when we’re about to play some of these people on the road, that we’re good enough to do that.”
Myers Park (10-4, 3-1 Southwestern 4A) plays at rival East Mecklenburg (1-12, 0-4) Friday night at 7:30. The Mustangs are tied with Rocky River (10-3, 3-1) for second place in the league, behind Independence (12-1, 4-0), the No. 2 ranked team in the Sweet 16. No. 5 Butler (12-2, 2-2) is looking up at all three teams.
This is not a position many people expected for Myers Park.
“No,” said senior guard Jake Rutledge said, “but we knew from the beginning we’d be this good. Off the court, before the season, we bonded so well that we knew we would play really good together.”
Myers Park has long enjoyed basketball success. It is 0-2 all-time in state finals and hasn’t been since 1966, but the Mustangs were in the N.C. 4A Western Regionals as recently as 2015, and have had eight winning seasons in the past 10.
Taylor, in his second year, was 11-14 in his first. That 2016-17 team started 8-5 but didn’t finish well. Taylor and this season’s Mustangs - again off to a good start - don’t want a repeat.
“We’ve got 10 (regular-season) games left,” Taylor said. “We’ve got Independence twice. We go to Butler. We’ve got Rocky River coming here and some other games that are just not easy. I told them (Wednesday) night that ‘These last 10 games are your season.’ Last year, we didn’t finish well. I expect to be able to contend for the top of the league, and if you’re contending for the top of the league in the Southwestern 4A, you’ve had a pretty good year.”
Taylor starts three seniors and two juniors and relies heavily on them: 6-3 senior Will Turner is the team’s utility player, who does whatever is needed. When a few of his higher-scoring teammates struggled in a 52-48 win over Harding Wednesday - a win that was Myers Park’s 10th in 12 games - Turner scored 15 points.
Rutledge, who turns the ball over less than twice per game, is shooting 44 percent from 3-point range. Junior Duwe Farris, a 6-6 junior, is averaging 11 points and has made 29-of-65 3-point shots, which ranks among the top 10 for 3-point makes among all N.C. 4A players.
Rutledge and Farris’ shooting has opened driving lanes for the team’s leading scorers - junior Caleb McReed and senior John Ingram. McReed, a 6-2 guard, averages 13.4 points, 5.5 rebounds, three assists and three steals per game. He had 37 points in the Butler upset win last month. Ingram, a 6-3 senior, averages 15.2 points, 5.6 rebounds and two assists.
Taylor said he likes where his team is right now - confident, experienced and ready. Now, he said, Myers Park just has to go out and do what it believes it can do.
“I told the kids at the beginning of the year that I thought we were capable of winning 15, 16, 17 games,” Taylor said. “We’ve put in a lot of work. We had a really good summer and the kids were really invested in the fall. We lost two games at the beginning of the year. We lost (44-43 to Hough to start the season Nov. 15) and we lost in overtime at Ardrey Kell (59-49 Nov. 17) when we had a lead. But from then on, you know what? They’ve responded pretty well.”
And, you know what? Myers Park’s got a chance.
Wertz: 704-358-5133; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr