A year ago, Bishop O’Connell ’s Leroy Butts would have dreaded a game like Sunday’s against No. 4 Paul VI. Banging inside with twin towers like the Panthers’ Marcus Derrickson and Quadree Smith wasn’t exactly ideal for the 6-foot-7, 210-pound Butts.
These feelings briefly resurfaced during Sunday’s first half, as Butts struggled to find position and convert interior shots against the Panthers’ big bodies.
“I got angry at myself but just before halftime, Coach [Joe Wootten] pulled me aside and said how much he believed in me and to keep shooting,” Butts recalled. “I gained a lot of confidence at the Beach Ball Classic over the holiday so I just took that and Coach’s talk and went to work.”
While focusing on the “little things,” Butts turned in a big second half, scoring 11 of his team-high 15 points while pulling down eight rebounds to help No. 2 O’Connell hold off Paul VI, 53-50, in Arlington.
After pulling down a missed free throw with 10 seconds left, Paul VI attempted to send the game to overtime, but Franklin Howard’s last-second three-point try from the top of the key rimmed out.
Points came at a premium for much of the contest, as both teams struggled with turnovers and free throws, shooting a combined 4 for 14 in the first half. The Panthers (8-3) used an extended zone to keep O’Connell sharpshooter Melo Trimble at bay and pack in the paint against senior forward Junior Etou. But Trimble made his mark on the boards, pulling down 12 rebounds and going coast-to-coast for a layup that put O’Connell up 23-20 at halftime.
The all-around play of Butts helped the Knights (12-1) extend their lead in the third. The sophomore hit a tip-in and turnaround jumper on consecutive possessions to put the Knights up by six with two minutes left in the period.
“Before I used to worry about my position because I didn’t like playing inside,” said Butts, who had nine points in the third, “but now I just focus on being a ball player and doing whatever the team needs, whether it’s defense, taking charges or crashing the boards.”
The Knights needed every bit of Butts’s scrappy play down the stretch. An acrobatic layup by Derrickson tied the game at 43 with five minutes remaining. As the clock wore down, the teams traded runs before Jamall Gregory nailed three of his last four free throw attempts and pulled down a big rebound to give the Knights enough cushion for a hard-fought Washington Catholic Athletic Conference win.
“Butts is the real deal. He’s got a soft touch for a big man and came up big along with Jamall at the end,” Wootten said. “We’ve been tested a lot this year and Paul VI is a great team, but we’ve responded with poise and I think that’s become sort of our hallmark so far, playing with poise.”