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Panthers ‘flip the switch’ in the fourth, surge past Warriors for first county boys title since 2018

CENTRE – Spring Garden senior point guard Cooper Austin has had an interesting weekend.

On Friday night, he missed the Panthers’ Cherokee County Tournament opener against Cedar Bluff to rehab a quad muscle contusion on his left leg suffered a week ago against Sand Rock.

Without Austin, the Panthers struggled against Cedar Bluff, but they pulled away for a 55-21 victory to secure a spot in Saturday’s tournament championship game.

“My past 24 hours have been a lot of therapy,” he said. “I’ve rehabbed twice. I’ve iced eight times. I had a wrap around my leg today kind of helping my hip flexor come up. It’s been hectic.

“I woke up at 8 o’clock (Saturday) morning and told daddy (Spring Garden head coach Ricky Austin) ‘Hey, I’m going to shoot. I can’t stay at home.’ He said ‘Don’t be running because we need you for tonight.’ I shot like 200 free throws. That’s all he’d let me do. I just couldn’t stay at home anymore.”

Austin proved to be ready to go against the Cherokee County Warriors. He scored 14 points, including a 3-pointer in the fourth quarter that gave the Panthers a one-point lead with 3:35 remaining. He also sank four free throws in the final 20 seconds of Spring Garden’s 51-46 victory.

The win secured the Panthers’ first county championship since 2018. Austin’s brother Riley Austin was a senior on that team and helped lead them to a 61-60 victory over Cherokee County in the tournament final.

Saturday was also the first time since 2018 both Panther squads won both the boys and girls titles. The Lady Panthers defeated Sand Rock 57-41.

“It goes beyond our team, that’s for sure,” Cooper Austin said. “It goes back to guys who played years ago. After the game, daddy brought some guys in who won the county tournament back then. We all broke it down. It’s just kind of like family. That’s just Spring Garden basketball. It’s a brotherhood. That’s not a county championship for the team in 2022. That’s a county championship for Spring Garden and the whole community. The support they put into us is phenomenal.”

Cooper Austin wasn’t the only Panther who’s been on the mend. Fellow senior Chaz Pope broke his leg back during football season. And, like his teammate, Pope made his impact in the fourth quarter against the Warriors on Saturday.

Pope finished with 13 points, including nine in the fourth quarter. He was also a catalyst for the Panthers (13-6) on defense and under the boards.

“We knew it was time to turn it up if we wanted to get the win,” Pope said. “Our team was hungry and ready to go. We just turned it up. The press helped us out. It started to speed them up and that worked to our favor.

“It wasn’t all me. There was a bunch of people who had a hand in it. (Andrew) Bates came up and gave us a spark at the start of the game by hitting a three. Cooper stepped it up. I just felt like it was my time to contribute a little and help us with a win.”

Coach Austin said he couldn’t be prouder of his son and Pope for their performances, as well as the rest of the Panthers.

“Our seniors are our leaders on this team right now,” he said. “They really showed a lot of leadership and maturity, and I’m proud they got to put their name on that gold ball (trophy). It’s there forever for them.

“The last week-and-a-half, two weeks, we’ve had our backs against the wall. Whenever I’ve challenged them, I’ll say ‘All right, it’s time to flip the switch.’ They have. They’re starting to build that identity right now.”

John Welsh also scored 14 points for the Panthers. Bates finished with six points on a pair of 3-pointers.

But the Warriors (11-10) made the top-seeded Panthers earn their latest county championship. They held a 16-13 lead the end of the first quarter and a 24-23 advantage at halftime. Cherokee County built a 33-26 edge after three quarters before the Panthers ‘flipped the switch.’

“Those guys turned it on in the fourth quarter,” Cherokee County coach Caleb Hays said. “They wanted a championship. Both teams wanted it, but they found their quarter. I really don’t think it was necessarily us having a bad quarter as much as it was they just came down and got really hot and made the shots. Chaz just got going. We contested him. We changed match-ups. We changed defenses. We played hard.

“It wasn’t the kids losing the game. It was just Spring Garden had some gamers. Chaz is a gamer. Cooper is a gamer. John’s a gamer. Andrew Bates is a gamer. All those guys, they were very, very competitive in the fourth. They elevated their game and made it tough on us. They did what teams who win championships do.”

Cade Hopper led the Warriors with 18 points on six 3-pointers. Jack Amos added 12 points and Jayden Wilson finished with nine points.

“I felt like other than Cade, we kind of struggled offensively most of the night,” Hays said. “Cade shot the ball extremely well. He hit one early and was very confident. His shot has really come around. He’s found it and he had a big game. That was good for him. We need that going on the rest of the season.”

Speaking of the rest of the season, Coach Austin hopes the Panthers aren’t just satisfied with winning a county title.

“It’s very hard to win this thing. It is very special,” he said. “I won two them as a player. We beat Centre both times in the championship as a player. Both of them were probably upsets, and we were the underdog. We were the underdog tonight. Even though we were the top seed, they’re a 4A school and we were playing from behind. That makes all of it that much more special to me.

“I’m so proud of how they responded to the fourth quarter. We faced adversity twice at the beginning. We got down early and fought our way back. We got down again, fought our way back. That means a lot to me, but I hope they’re not satisfied with where they are. It’s going to take even more than that down the road to keep winning.”

Junior Varsity Boys Championship

Cherokee County 29, Spring Garden 23

CENTRE – Zack Gaylor and Aiden Watts both netted six points, and Lamycal Mitchell and Landon Ransum added five points apiece to lead the Cherokee County Junior Varsity Warriors to a 29-23 victory over Spring Garden on Saturday.

Connor Bates topped Spring Garden with 10 points. Cole Bailey finished with seven points.

The Warriors built a 13-6 first-quarter lead and held a 17-11 advantage at halftime. Cherokee County maintained a 19-15 edge after three quarters.

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