By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director
SAND ROCK – Spring Garden sophomore post player John Welsh said Sand Rock “big-boyed us” in their meetings on the basketball court in the past. He wanted to do something about that on Tuesday.
Welsh turned in his own “big-boy” performance. He scored 31 points – including a perfect 7-of-7 from the free-throw line – and grabbed 14 rebounds in leading the Panthers to a 57-51 victory.
“Me, Jacob (Welsh) and Cameron (Welsh) were the only ones that have ever played against them last year,” Welsh said. “They big-boyed us by being more stronger and physical than us, so we just had to be the leaders because nobody else has been here before.
“All of my teammates played great. I just had to create and get a lead for them,”
Eight of Welsh’s points came in the crucial fourth quarter.
“We finished around the rim,” Spring Garden coach Levi Hatcher said. “John would catch the ball and when he got in the paint, he was on two feet finishing every time. He was a man down low.”
In addition to Welsh’s performance, the Panthers (5-2) also got a huge night from its defense. They limited Sand Rock’s leading scorer, senior point guard Jacob StClair, to just one made 3-pointer in the game. He still led the Wildcats with 23 points. The Panthers also limited Sand Rock senior forward Kaden Justice to just five points.
“They mixed up a couple of defenses on us and kept us off-balance. They did a good job,” Sand Rock coach John Blackwell said. “That’s the first time this year we’ve seen either one of those defenses. Now we’ve got film on them and we can prepare.
“You know people are going to run some things against you, but you can’t execute it in practice like when you see it in a game. We talked about some things we were going to do when we saw those defenses, but still, when you’re trying to run them in practice against the B-team, it doesn’t look quite as good as another team’s varsity starters.”
The game was tight throughout. Neither team had more than a four-point lead until late in the fourth quarter. Welsh gave the Panthers a six-point edge on back-to-back baskets at the 2:16 and 1:17 marks of the fourth quarter. Sand Rock cut its deficit down to four on a rebound and putback by Justice with 35 seconds to go, but a pair of Cam Welsh free throws in the final seven seconds secured the Panther victory.
Jon Marq Rogers added eight points for Spring Garden. Cam Welsh and Connor Bates both finished with six points.
Ben Dale contributed 11 points for Sand Rock. Bradley Jackson tallied eight points, including a 4-for-4 performance from the free-throw line.
“That was big,” Hatcher said of the win. “They’ve really dominated teams. They’re going and beating 6A schools, 5A schools. They have some close losses to bigger schools. I told our guys what surprised me the most was how locked in mentally they were when only three of them had played in an environment like this. That was wonderful. That should boost us going into Thursday night which is a huge area game at Cedar Bluff. Hopefully the confidence our guys get here will carry over.”
“They executed and we didn’t,” Blackwell said. “There were several times there was a loose ball and they wanted it more than we did. That’s what it come down to. They wanted every loose ball. They wanted every rebound more than we wanted it.
“Games like this will help us get better. The defenses we saw tonight, we’re going to see again, but we’ll be more prepared next time. We played against a very good team.”
NOTE: Following the game, Sand Rock recognized Justice for eclipsing 1,000 points for his career earlier this season. He joins Cade Ballenger, Garyn Sharpe and StClair (who is now Sand Rock’s all-time leading scorer with 1,786 points) as the fourth Wildcat to reach the milestone in four consecutive years.
“I’m proud of Kaden,” Blackwell said. “Four players in four years, that’s pretty impressive.
“A lot of people talk about with those type of basketball players, why aren’t we winning more games? When you look at last year, the 12 or 13 losses we had, we had four in our classification. The other eight or nine were 4A or higher. Over half of those losses were to 6A or 7A teams. You look at our team this year. We’ve played Spring Garden, our area teams, and outside of that, it’s 4A or higher. Our win-loss record is never going to be the greatest. We’re going to Panama City in a couple of weeks for a tournament and playing some of the best teams in the United States. We may come back 0-3 from that tournament, but we’ll come back better.”