By Ryan Buck
The Austintown Fitch student section has watched their senior point guard Jessie Driver cross over, drive past and rise up over countless opponents for the past three years, and his classmates revel in every defender that stumbles after him.
“Oh, it never gets old,” Driver said. “When we get it going like that and we can get our fans into the game, it’s a great feeling.”
In the Falcons’ 69-55 All-American Conference win over Canfield on Friday, however, it was Driver’s classmate and backcourt partner who also thrilled the sizeable student body in attendance.
Senior Michael Butcher’s career-high 26 points, along with 19 mostly spectacular points from Driver, led the Falcons past their conference foe and allowed them to remain in a tie at the top of the American Division standings with Poland.
If there is such a thing as “the zone,” Butcher found it, knocking down five 3-pointers and repeatedly stunting any Canfield rallies once the Falcons earned a first-half lead.
“It’s such an amazing feeling,” Butcher said. “When you get into a rhythm like that, you just want to keep shooting and my teammates were finding me all night.”
Fitch’s inside-outside offensive attack and unconscious perimeter shooting — the Falcons made 11 3-pointers for the game — came in perhaps their most complete performance of the season.
“It was clicking tonight for sure,” said Fitch coach Brian Beany. “When you have a point guard as great as Jessie is that can do everything — he can drive, shoot, pass, leap — it makes everyone else better. That opens things up for guys like [Butcher] and he was on tonight.”
With the Falcons holding an 11-9 lead toward the end of the first quarter, Driver, without hesitation, knocked down pull-up 3-point jumpers on back-to-back Fitch possessions. His 10 first-quarter points helped Fitch jump out to a 17-12 lead.
“I came out attacking tonight,” Driver said. “I wasn’t holding anything back on them. This was the night.”
Butcher, 5-foot-10 and 150 pounds on a good day, has created serious debate within the Falcon program over the number of shots he hoists per day. Coaches estimate around 300, but friends put the total as high as 1,000.
He started slow, but capitalized when Canfield’s defense collapsed on every Driver touch. After Andrew Midgley’s five straight points brought Canfield (11-3, 6-2) to within three points midway through the second quarter, Butcher knocked down 3-pointers on two consecutive Fitch trips to push the lead to 28-19. Two steals-and-lay-ups punctuated an eight-point third quarter.
“I knew it was going to come down to guard play,” said Canfield coach Todd Muckleroy. “Certainly Driver is the focal point, but Butcher obviously fed off that and really had a great game.”
Canfield, which used a full-court press to help turn several fourth-quarter turnovers into points, got as close as 55-47 in the final minutes, but Fitch (11-1, 7-1) knocked down six of nine foul shots to close out the game.