By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director
SPRING GARDEN – Spring Garden boys basketball coach Levi Hatcher felt like the Panthers didn’t have the fire last week in the Cherokee County Tournament. That led the Panthers to have what he called a “fiery, physical practice on Monday and Tuesday, to the point where guys were getting a little upset with each other.”
Whatever the Panthers did during those two days must’ve worked against Class 1A, Area 12 rival Cedar Bluff. Spring Garden’s defense frustrated the Tigers to the point of causing four of them to foul out in a 51-34 decision.
The win clinched the regular-season area title for the No. 8 Panthers (13-7, 8-0). Spring Garden’s reward will be hosting the upcoming area tournament.
“I told our guys I’m proud you brought the fire,” Hatcher said. “I told them I’m glad to see this fire because now we can use it, harness it, and let it drive us. I think it did tonight.
“I think there for a couple of weeks we kind of lost our edge a little bit on defense in terms of we wanted to wait until the ball was passed, and then when they caught it, we started to move. It was such a great job by our guys defensively, just sticking to the game plan. They were scrambling and just swarming. I don’t think we gave up too many open looks.”
The Panthers set the tone from the get-go. They led 9-6 after a quarter and built an 18-8 advantage at halftime.
Cedar Bluff’s foul trouble began in the third quarter, but the Tigers (14-9, 6-2) were still able to keep within striking distance with a solid defensive performance of their own. They were down 30-20 heading into the fourth.
The Tigers managed to trim Spring Garden’s lead to eight on a couple of occasions early in the fourth quarter, but then the foul outs began, which sent the Panthers to the free-throw line.
The Panthers were 13-of-21 from the charity stripe in the fourth quarter, including a 6-for-6 performance from Cam Welsh.
“It was intense and hard, a rivalry game like it should be,” Cedar Bluff coach Johnny Amison said. “They played great defense, and I thought we played great defense. They just got a few more buckets and free throws than what we got.
“We couldn’t get too close to them, but we’ve got to learn to adjust, understand how the game is being called and figure it out. I really want to say I’m proud of my guys and how they’ve matured over the season. A few weeks ago, maybe last year, they wouldn’t have handled this the way they handled it today. I’m proud of them for that.”
No Tiger player was able to reach double figures in scoring. MJ Adams led Cedar Bluff with nine points. Eli McFry and Isaac Bishop both netted seven points.
John Welsh topped Spring Garden with 15 points. Jake Welsh and Cam Welsh both had 10 points. Connor Bates and Chapel Pope both posted five points.
“I think they (Cedar Bluff) kind of got a little frustrated because of the way we played defense in the first half. I think that’s what kind of started that whole process going,” Hatcher said. “I’ve been part of teams where I was on offense and felt like there’s seven defenders out there because of the way they move and rotate and stuff. It’s just really hard to get open looks. It can take a toll on you mentally. Basketball is a physical sport, but it’s about as equally a mental sport. If you ever lose that mental edge, it can snowball on you.”
“They’ve got to get past this one and let it go. We’ve more important things to worry about now,” Amison said. “We’ve still got a couple of regular-season games left. We’re going to try and use those to get us better and get us ready for the tournament.”
Spring Garden 65, Cedar Bluff 30
SPRING GARDEN – Ace Austin was honored Thursday prior to the top-ranked Lady Panthers’ area game against Cedar Bluff on Thursday for scoring her 2,000th point. She was presented the ball from Saturday’s milestone by her father and head coach Ricky Austin.
Then the younger Austin proceeded to lead the Lady Panthers to another impressive victory.
Austin scored 15 points, including three 3-pointers, to go along with nine assists, three rebounds and three steals in a 65-30 decision over the Lady Tigers.
Maggie Jarrett contributed 12 points, five assists, four blocks, three rebounds and a steal. Kristen Lewis connected on three treys and had nine points and a pair of steals. Kayley Kirk also collected nine points, including two 3-pointers, along with three rebounds, three steals, two blocks and two assists.
Libby Brown earned eight points, six steals, three assists and two rebounds. Olivia Law finished with six points, two rebounds, two steals and an assist.
Caley Bruce led the Lady Tigers with 14 points.
Spring Garden jumped out on a 34-1 first-quarter run and led 52-5 at halftime. The Lady Panthers held a 65-20 edge after three quarters.
The win closed out a perfect 8-0 mark in Class 1A, Area 12 for Spring Garden (26-0). The Lady Panthers will host the upcoming area tournament. They’ll host Ider in regular-season action on Friday beginning at 6 p.m.
Cedar Bluff (11-11, 3-4) hosts Collinsville on Tuesday, also at 6 p.m.