Butler High was 30-0 when it reached the N.C. 4A state semifinals against Southwest Guilford in March. It was a game many observers felt would determine the eventual state champion.
Butler was on the cusp of history. Only two Mecklenburg County boys’ basketball teams had ever finished the season unbeaten and holding an N.C. High School Athletic Association state 4A championship: West Charlotte in 1986 and Olympic in 2013.
But Butler missed a point-blank shot with 13 seconds left in a tie game, and then Southwest Guilford’s Cooper Cunningham hit the shot of his life, a 3-pointer from the left corner, with less than two seconds to play. It sent Southwest Guilford to the state championship, where it won by 24 points.
It sent Butler home to wonder what happened.
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‘I’m really not past it to be honest,” said Butler High coach Myron Lowery, who begins his fourth season this month. “I think about it daily. I really do. Something seems to happen to trigger it. We were that close to not only winning a state championship, but that close to being 32-0. Nobody has done that.
“And it hurt even more to watch them beat (Raleigh) Leesville Road by 24 points in the state championship and knowing (the semifinal game) was it. We played pretty well and made some minor mistakes at the ened. We had our foot on their throat and let them go. I don’t know if I’ll ever let that go, to be honest.”
So Lowery and his team, ranked No. 4 in the preseason Observer Sweet 16, now has motivation.
Coming off a 30-1 season, Butler returns two starters - New Orleans recruit Gerrale Gates, a 6-foot-6, 235-pound senior forward; and 6-2, 190-pound senior wing DJ Little, who has committed to Queens. Butler initially had 6-9 New York transfer and Division I recruit Isaiah Richards on the team, but he returned home to New York. But another transfer, former Rocky River standout Raquan Brown, a 6-4 junior guard, will play a big role.
Lowery said this team isn’t as seasoned as last year’s, but it is as talented. He said the schedule is the most difficult he’s ever put together - to test and mold his team early so it’s ready to produce in February and March, when games become more important.
“We know the margin for error is very small,” said Lowery, who is eight wins from 300. “We knew last year when you get that deep into the playoffs that the little things matter, but we learned from that. Now, we’re not as experienced and we’re a different team this year than last year, but it fuels us to make sure we cover every detail and prepare for every situation.”
Lowery said his team will depend heavily on its college-recruited seniors, but believes his new faces will surprise people.
“I wouldn’t trade DJ Little and Gerrale Gates for anybody,” Lowery said. “Raquan Brown is coming into the mix and he’s had a learning process to the way we do things at Butler. But we’ve got some guys maybe people don’t know who can play. They could’ve played a whole lot of other places last year around the city. But now it’s their time and their turn.”
Butler begins the season Nov. 21 at South Mecklenburg and then plays Sweet 16 No. 5 Cannon School at the showcase Charlotte Hoops Challenge Tournament over the Thanksgiving holiday. Butler will also play in the Hoodies House tournament in December with a collection of regional and national powers.
Lowery, who is 77-11 in his first three years at Butler, is not expecting another unbeaten season. He is hoping, however, for growth.
Butler reached the third round of the state playoffs his first year. The Bulldogs made the Elite 8 in his second. Last season, came the run to the Final Four.
This year, Lowery and Butler want to take the next and final step to reach the state championship game. And the memory of last year’s loss, and this year’s schedule, they hope, are the right tools to get them there.
“We may have to go through a little bit with our schedule, especially here early, to get where we want to go and keep getting better,” Lowery said. “Hopefully towards the end of the year, that’s when we’re playing our best basketball, and going through some of these wars early will help these kids grow up really quick. That’s the thinking behind it all.”
Wertz: 704-358-5133; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr