BY JAKE DONOVAN
Despite its rocky start to the 2018-19 season, the Independence Eagles have never taken to the hardwood believing they were inferior to any basketball team in middle Tennessee.
That fighting spirit showed in an upset win over the Centennial Cougars, overcoming a late collapse to prevail in a 62-60 overtime thriller Tuesday evening at Centennial High School.
Matthew St. Charles led all scorers with 17 points, all but two of which came in the second half and overtime. Senior swing Jack Sisson added 16 points, including four clutch free throws in overtime to give the Eagles its first District 11-AAA win of the season.
“I couldn’t be prouder to coach this team than with the effort they gave tonight,” Eagles head coach Doug Keil told Home Page. “This team never stops fighting, not in any of our early losses and at no point tonight were they willing to give up.”
Neither team could throw the ball in the ocean in a rocky first half that saw a combined 36 points. Turnovers and poor shot selection on both sides contributed in a 16-minute stretch lacking any sustained momentum.
That changed in a big way for the Eagles in the third quarter, riding the hot hand of St. Charles who scored 11 points in the period including seven straight to show significant signs of an upset on the horizon.
“My teammates did a really good job of setting me up for wide open shots, creating opportunities after I struggled to get free early on,” noted St. Charles. “I just gained confidence and my shot started falling.”
The hosting Cougars weren’t going down without a fight. Trailing by more than double digits, junior point guard Tre Carlton hit a triple to wake up the crowd and followed up with a hard-driving layup to bring Centennial within nine at the end of three.
Independence went back up by 11 with just over six minutes to go, before the Cougars turned to its makeshift leader to ignite a rally.
“The positive side of our sluggish start was that the dam was going to eventually break,” Cougars head coach Peter Froedden stated. “We were cold through the first three quarters, but there are just too many good shooters on this team to stay down.”
Junior swing Dusty Williams scored 10 of his team high 16 points in the fourth quarter, including back-to-back threes with the latter bringing Centennial within one with less than a minute to go.
“My teammates really picked me up,” said Williams, who was just 1-of-8 shooting through the first three quarters before getting hot in the final period of regulation. “Tre and them, they told me to just keep shooting the ball, that my shots would eventually start dropping.”
With Williams suddenly a red-hot threat, the Eagles had to make a defensive shift. The extra attention placed on the Cougars leading scorer provided just enough of a window for senior forward Alex Wall to drive to the basket, hitting a layup to tie the game 47-47 with 0:26 to play.
Both teams had their chances to win in regulation, but turnovers on three straight possession and missed short-range jumpers forced the four-minute overtime.
Despite having enjoyed a 21-point 4th quarter to rally from way behind, the Cougars entered the bonus quarter in deep foul trouble. Williams, Isaiah Poore and Andrew Ellison all fouled out during the overtime session, with the Eagles scoring nine of its 15 OT points on free throws.
Still, the resurgence wasn’t without its own casualties. High-flying senior point guard Preston Garner—a key part of the Eagles pulling away in the third quarter—would also foul out, leaving the game with 10 points and seven assists. His absence was felt late in overtime, with the Eagles committing three straight turnovers. The Cougars scored on two of the three possession changes, only for its offense to once again go cold at the wrong time.
Sisson—who missed two key free throws in the fourth quarter—was a perfect 6-for-6 from the stripe in overtime to extend the Eagles lead and ultimately put the game out of reach.
“The scoreboard aside, our boys played fantastic tonight,” Froedden noted of his young Cougars squad. “We hustled hard, we were aggressive on both ends of the floor—the shooting came around when we needed it the most, but I just have to give it up to Doug Keil, he did an excellent job of coaching on the other side of the court tonight. He always has his boys game ready and had them well-prepared for us tonight.”
After having lost its first seven games, the Eagles have now won two straight. Following its huge win over Nolensville on Friday, they now pick up their first district win of the season (1-2 in 11-AAA ball) in improving to 2-7 overall. They head to friendly confines for a big rivalry game versus the Summit Spartans on Friday.
The victory also adds to Independence’s overall dominance in this head-to-head rivalry, having now beaten the Cougars in each of its last two matchups and 9 of their past 10 meetings.
Meanwhile, the Cougars fall from the top of the District 11-AAA perch. The loss puts Centennial at 6-3 overall and 2-1 in district play, hitting the road for Friday’s all-Franklin showdown with the high-scoring Franklin Rebels.
Photo from Centennial’s Twitter.