Otero upsets Butler women in NJCAA Women's Tournament

Charles Chaney
Butler County Times Gazette
Butler’s MeKayla Furman dribbles the ball up the court in the second half at the Rip Griffin Center in Lubbock, Texas in the first round of the 2021 NCJAA Women’s National Tournament. Butler fell to Otero 74-67 to end their season 20-4.

LUBBOCK, Texas—Sometimes when you lose a player, your entire game plan can change on a dime. 

When Butler’s Skyla Knight went down in the first quarter with a knee injury, it sent Butler into a whirlwind of adjustments. 

The Grizzlies couldn’t find the right sauce after Knight went down as the 12th-seeded Butler Grizzlies fell to the 21st-seeded Otero Rattlers 74-67.

“I hate the fact that it’s going to end that way, on someone being injured,” Butler Head Coach Mike Helmer said. “I’d rather just lost a normal game than lose like that.”

Butler’s season ends 20-4. 

“We weren’t ready for that [Knight injury],” Butler Head Coach Mike Helmer said. “Team morale I thought dipped and I thought everything kind of dipped at that point.

“I’m proud of our kids for fighting. Something like that goes down and the kept playing hard.”

Butler was rolling up until that point. They had an eight-point lead and it felt as if anything Otero did, it benefited Butler.

Knight had caught a ball streaking to the rim for an easy layup. She tried to create contact but her left knee gave out, sending her crashing to the hardwood. She would be helped off and would not return. 

Knight, who just committed to Ball State, finished her career at Butler as a first team all-conference player. 

Otero chipped back into the game by using the long ball. As Butler packed the paint, Washington State commit, Leah Mufua, hit top of the key 3s and made Butler pay. 

The Lady Rattlers grabbed a 34-33 lead with 1:04 remaining in the half but Riley Hett stepped in, nailed a three to send Butler into the break with the 36-34 lead. 

Then, Butler came out and committed a turnover, leading to a Rattler basket. From that point on, it would be neck-and-neck. 

“It’s bad mental decisions,” Helmer said. “We had some turnovers at the end that were just silly turnovers that really hurt us.”

The Lady Rattlers hit four threes in the third quarter, including three in a span of four minutes to give Otero a little cushion. Kristian Hagood’s jumper with 3:11 remaining in the third gave Otero (19-3) their largest lead at the time, up 52-47.

“I think Coach Helmer had a really really good defensive game plan on us,” Otero Head Coach Landon Steele said. “We tried to get downhill and get to the free throw line as often as possible and we shot a lot of threes. Thankfully, we were converting.”

While Otero made 12 of 32 from deep, biggest difference came at the free throw line. When Butler went to the line, they struggled as they have all season long. They were 14 of 22, while Otero was 18 of 22, including making 9 of 10 in the game’s final 1:31.

“Our kids did a really good job of stepping up and making plays when we needed to,” coach Steele said. 

The Grizzlies despite everything were in it. They had the lead after Tamara Nard split free throws to put Butler up 67-65 with 2:02 remaining. However, Butler couldn’t buy a bucket. They didn’t score a field goal over the game’s final 5:03. That’s where the Grizzlies missed someone like Skyla Knight and her ability to slash into the paint and find a bucket. 

Butler showed some fatigue as they missed three of their four final free throws. 

“They have really good bigs,” Mufua said. “We’ve been studying their tape since regionals and knew this was going to be tough.”

Mufua finished with 16 points on 5 of 12 shooting. She also had three rebounds for the Lady Rattlers. 

Butler was led by Nard, who finished with 16 points and nine rebounds and one block.

Otero moves on, focusing onto the future is where both teams are for now. Otero’s future is on No. 5 seed, Northwest Florida State.

“Turning the ball over 28 times won’t cut it against Northwest Florida State,” Steele said.

For the Grizzlies and Mike Helmer, it’s going to be a rough bus ride back to El Dorado.

“We’ll regroup and learn from this for next year,” Helmer said. 

Charles Chaney has been the Sports Editor for the Butler County Times-Gazette since Aug. 2019. You can reach him at cchaney@butlercountytimesgazette.com or on Twitter at @ChuckChaneyBCTG.