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Garden girls win third straight Cherokee County championship

CENTRE – Even being down seven points early to Sand Rock in the Cherokee County Girls Tournament championship game on Saturday, Spring Garden coach Ricky Austin didn’t panic. He had seen the Lady Panthers battle back from a similar deficit earlier this season in a game at the Sandestin Blowout in Florida.

“I thought we’ve been here before,” Austin said. “I thought somebody would make a basket and get us going. If we get going, we’re going to be OK. That’s kind of the calmness I had because of what had happened in the past.”

Back-to-back Neely Welsh 3-pointers gave the Lady Panthers the spark Austin was looking for, and Spring Garden seemed to cruise from there in a 57-41 victory that clinched their third straight Cherokee County Tournament championship. It was also the Lady Panthers’ third win over Sand Rock this season.

“It was a battle early,” Austin said. “They had a double-overtime game (against Cherokee County Friday) night. It might have dug into their legs a little bit, I’m not real sure. I know Lisa and myself are probably playing cat-and-mouse right now. We don’t want to show too much. We want to win. We want to show just enough to get the edge and win. We didn’t have to dig too deep into some other things we’d like to do, but we did have to try a few different things tonight. They’re a match-up problem, but I’m proud of how our girls took that first hit and steadied the ship.”

Sand Rock (20-4) built a 9-2 advantage in the first before Welsh’s treys gave Spring Garden (23-1) its first lead. The Lady Panthers maintained a 17-14 advantage after one.

A slow-paced second quarter yielded a 26-21 edge, but then things heated up for the Lady Panthers in the third quarter. They went on an 18-8 run in the third to take a 44-29 lead.

“I thought our shot production in the paint wasn’t very good the first half,” Austin said. “We had shots, but we didn’t make them. That’s basically all we talked about (at halftime). We’re getting shots we want. We’re not changing anything. I want those same shots. Let’s just make more of them. We started making more of them in the third quarter, and I thought that was the difference.”

Ace Austin led the Lady Panthers with 17 points. Kayley Kirk connected on four 3-pointers and had 15 points. Welsh tossed in 13 points and Sarah Kate McKay finished with seven points.

“The first half, our offense wasn’t clicking, but defense is what held us in the game,” Ace Austin said. “At halftime he said the defense has still got to be there. We always stress it at practice, and as they say, defense wins championships.”

Katelyn StClair topped Sand Rock with 11 points. McKenna Ballenger added 10 points. Lanie Henderson and Caley Garrett finished with seven and six points respectively.

“We came out strong, but we just had a bad third quarter again,” Sand Rock coach Lisa Bates said. “They broke it open from six to 20 real fast in that third quarter. We’ve got to do something about that. I didn’t feel like we played together too well. We can do better with that.

“I thought we had some shots, but we just didn’t stick them in. It added up fast when they were hitting theirs and we weren’t hitting ours.”

And just like that, Spring Garden was able to keep the Cherokee County Tournament trophy ball and put it back in their trophy case.

“This is pretty special,” Welsh said. “We always talk about every year before we send it off for county, we always give it one last touch. He (Coach Austin) gives it to the seniors for it to be their job to bring it back. I think we did just that.”

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