Ryan Curry handled the ball at the top of the key. The shot clock was running down on a crucial possession for Army, but Mark Butler had other plans.
“When people spin, I got my signature move,” Butler said with a big smile on his face Tuesday night. “I like to backtrack from behind, I could’ve had it a couple of times, but I missed it, and then I saw the opportunity and I just took [the ball].”
He sprinted down the court and laid the ball in, giving Lafayette a four-point lead.
MARK BUTLER STEALS THE BALL AND LAYS IT IN ON THE OTHER END!!!— Sam Federman (@Sam_Federman) January 4, 2024
LEOPARDS AHEAD BY 4, 31 SECONDS LEFT, TIMEOUT ARMY! pic.twitter.com/PE8Rof0whW
Butler led Lafayette with 13 points, none bigger than those final two, as Lafayette earned its first win against a Division I opponent, 52-47, over Army in the Patriot League opener.
“He’s been very confident of late,” Leopards head coach Mike McGarvey said of his freshman point guard. “He runs our team, he handles the ball, he got a little bit tired towards the end of the game, but he had that big play at the end.”
Butler says that he learned the move that he used from former Samford star Josh Sharkey, a Philadelphia Catholic League legend. He’s been using the move since sixth grade, and tonight, it was the difference between certain victory and potential defeat.
On a young team, in a young league, having a freshman point guard make his mark in his first league game is a statement, regardless of what the Leopards’ record finishes as this year.
“He’s been a rock for us,” McGarvey said. “He’s been there for us all season long.”
A four-year varsity point guard in a tough Philadelphia high-school league, Butler has been very impressive, even if his numbers don’t quite stick out yet. Tonight was his third double-digit scoring game of his last five, and he’s averaging 3.5 assists to go along with it.
“My game is getting downhill and trying to make the right play at all times,” Butler said. “I’ve been doing that since high school and middle school, and I’m just trying to bring that to the team.”
The non-conference slate was not kind to Lafayette. The team had gone 0-12 against Division I opponents before Tuesday, and McGarvey is proud of his team’s resolve to stick together.
“We’ve kept going,” the coach said. “It’s been hard to keep on going and keep spirit alive on our team. The confidence level was a bit down because we’ve been playing a hard schedule, and we haven’t been winning. So for this to be the result in our first Patriot League game, I hope it gives our guys a boost.”
His point guard echoed a similar sentiment.
“I think we made a statement tonight that we can play with anybody in the league,” Butler said. “You might look at our 1-12 record, and think that we’re not good or anything like that, but we had a tough out of conference schedule.”
The Leopards jumped out to a 21-9 lead in the first half, and it looked as though they were going to cruise in their conference opener.
“I was getting in the paint and making plays,” Butler said. “I had a floater and a layup, I was just getting to the basket, trying to make the right play if they switch, looking for my big man low. I was just trying to make the right play every time.”
However, Army charged back. TJ Small and Josh Scovens led the Black Knights back, both finishing in double figures.
“Army made a couple of adjustments that were really good,” McGarvey said. “They pressured us a little bit more, they didn’t really help off our dribbles, and they played smaller, so they spaced the floor a little bit better.”
Both teams had long scoring droughts, and the game turned into a defensive struggle in the second half. A combined 40 points were scored between the two teams after recess, but neither of these teams could’ve truly expected this game to be a shootout.
“Defense has to be in our identity,” McGarvey said. “We haven’t been scoring a lot of points this year, so we have to find a way to be really good on defense to give us opportunities that even if we don’t shoot a great percentage, we can still come out with a win.”
While Colgate is still the overwhelming favorite in the Patriot League, lots of upstart coaches and young players will attempt to make their mark. Lafayette took the first step today.
“Our record might say one thing, but we’re going to come out every night and compete,” Butler said.