By Brian Paglia
Afflicted for the first half of Wednesday night's contest with an impotent offense and spiritless effort unknown to its home crowd, Dutchtown's girls basketball team still clung to hope at halftime. A 14-point deficit was not uncharted territory. Neither was its opponent.
So Dutchtown responded with the aplomb expected of a roster with six seniors. The Lady Bulldogs surged in the second half for a 55-46 victory in the second round of the Class AAAA tournament and more closely resembled the team that accomplished unprecedented feats in the regular season.
But all of those feats -- the record of wins in a season (26 and counting), the region regular season and tournament championships -- now become footnotes. Dutchtown (26-2) is on to the quarterfinals at Fort Valley State for the first time in school history, where it will play Glenn Hills with a place in the semifinals at stake.
"We knew we were making history even last year. This year we tried to set the bar a little higher," said Dutchtown guard Brittney Strickland, who scored 14 points, all in the second half. "If anybody was coming after us, they were going to have to go hard. We're trying to all we can while we can."
The Lady Bulldogs summoned a renewed vigor on defense that flustered Butler (23-7) into 10 second-half turnovers, and in doing so invigorated its offense. By the time senior forward Courtney Durham finished a backdoor pass with just more than four minutes remaining, Dutchtown had turned that 14-point halftime deficit into an eight-point lead.
"I tried to throw some different things at Butler," Dutchtown coach Angela Williams said. "Full-court man press to give (Butler) a chance where they couldn't react in time and maybe try to get a couple buckets off that."
It worked. Before Butler had any chance of maintaining its momentum from the first half, Dutchtown took it.
Where Dutchtown had no answer for Butler forwards Shameka Carter (14 points) and Liz Grissom (12 points) in the first half, it found the hustle to crash the boards for offensive rebounds.
Where Dutchtown had no answer for Butler's "box and 1" defense, aimed at containing Strickland, the Region 4-AAAA player of the year unraveled Butler's strategy by attacking the basket.
Her scoreless first half? That turned out to be a ruse.
"At the beginning of the game I told myself I was just going to set my teammates up and play defense and the scoring would come," Strickland said. "So in the first half, when I was scoreless, it was OK, I guess. Most importantly I was trying to find out how to get my teammates going."
Strickland found the best way was to return to her aggressive nature and hope it rubbed off on others. Three players joined Strickland in double figures. Abria Trice scored 12 points and Jessica Foster and Strickland's twin sister, Alyssa, each added 10.
Yet, for one half, Dutchtown had its crowd and coach concerned. Enough that Williams subbed five new players with 5:50 left in the first half. Enough that Williams felt her team deserved a measure of reality after the game.
"They didn't play with any kind of intensity, no heart," Williams said. "(Butler) just outhustled us. You had four (Butler) jerseys getting back and one (Dutchtown) jersey. That's just about hustle and heart. ...This isn't the time to be losing it."