By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director
SPRING GARDEN – The Spring Garden Panthers and Cedar Bluff Tigers both like an up-tempo pace. It was anything but that during their Class 1A, Area 12 tournament title game on Thursday night.
The pace was lethargic much of the game. Only two players – one from each team – scored in double figures. A combined 44 fouls were called.
Yeah, it was that kind of night.
When the final horn sounded, Spring Garden managed to take a 47-31 victory.
“Those are the games that the players just have to be gritty,” Spring Garden coach Levi Hatcher said. “Sometimes you have pretty wins and sometimes it’s ugly wins. It’s like I told Coach (Johnny) Amison, those games are really hard to get a flow for, for either team. There’s a lot of starting and stopping throughout the game. Neither team could really get a footing or rhythm going. It was really tough.”
“It was a very choppy game,” Amison said. “Sometimes it’s hard to get a read on what’s being called and what’s not being called.”
But Cedar Bluff’s MJ Adams had a good read from the get-go. He scored eight of his game-high 17 points in the first quarter, in which the Tigers led 15-12.
“This was the type of game for him,” Amison said. “He can finish around the basket strong. He got in there and did what we asked him to do. That was part of the game plan, get in there and get them in foul trouble. I felt like if we could get them in foul trouble we’d have a chance.”
The Tigers (15-13) did have their chance thanks to Adams’ play and getting Spring Garden’s Welsh twins – John and Jake – into early foul trouble.
However, Spring Garden’s bench was able to compensate and keep things close. Noah Barber sank a pair of 3-pointers before halftime. Another reserve, Cole Bailey, also scored a pair of key baskets in the second quarter as the Panthers went to a deliberate slow pace, helping give them a 22-19 edge.
“I hate slowing down games, but the way that game was, sometimes you’ve got to,” Hatcher said. “That second group came in and I think they controlled the last 4 ½ minutes. Noah Barber, my goodness, those were the two biggest threes of his life. They were big.”
The third quarter was also pretty stagnant offensively. A total of eight points were scored, as Spring Garden (19-7) increased its lead to 28-21.
The Welsh twins played most of the fourth quarter. Jake Welsh scored 12 of his 15 points in the fourth, including a 6-of-8 free-throw shooting performance, to help the Panthers pull away for the win.
“The fourth quarter was when I put my head on my shoulders,” Jake Welsh said. “I just went through the motions and actually played basketball.”
“When he is aggressive and commands his space, it kind of changes the dynamics of our team,” Hatcher said. “It’s not that he’s got to score 15 or 20. The defensive players will look over their shoulders and crash. It opens up outside shots, opens up driving lanes, gets fouls on the other team.
“He’s also a really good free-throw shooter. When he commands his presence, it makes the game easier for people around him. If he doesn’t command that space, everybody’s got to work a little bit harder. It’s really hard to guard and replace that guy who’s 6-6.”
“We usually do a pretty good job on him, but we had some foul trouble,” Amison said. “They had a mismatch that he could take advantage of and he did. They did a good job of getting it to him and he took advantage of it.”
Another key factor was the Tigers’ free-throw shooting. They were just 5-of-17 from the charity stripe for the game.
“We missed 12 free throws tonight. If we make eight of them, in a low-scoring game like this, it’s a totally different game,” Amison said. “We’ve got to do our part and put the ball in the hole.”
John Welsh, selected as the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, netted nine points for the Panthers as did Jon Marq Rogers. Barber and Bailey finished with six and five points respectively.
“It’s an honor (to be chosen MVP),” John Welsh said. “My teammates helped me out a lot. That game was really unselfish. They gave me the passes to score. They help out a lot with their energy and everything.”
Joining the Welsh twins on the all-tournament team from Spring Garden was Cam Welsh.
Adams, along with Eli McFry and Bucky Leek, were selected from Cedar Bluff. McFry finished Thursday’s area title game with six points on a pair of 3-pointers.
Jacksonville Christian’s Ethan Fair rounded out the all-tournament team.
Both Spring Garden and Cedar Bluff advance to the Tuesday’s sub-regional round. Their opponent is yet to be determined from Area 15. That championship game between Oakwood Adventist and Skyline is scheduled for Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
“You’ve got to get here before you get to where you want to go,” Hatcher said. “I feel like this past 2 ½, 3 weeks, we’ve gotten into our rhythm and routine and are playing our best basketball right here at the end of the year, minus tonight’s game. It’s an anomaly.”
Amison also hopes the Tigers can keep adding to their success this season.
“We haven’t been to an area championship game in five or six years, so they’ve done something several teams before them have not done. It’s something they can hold their heads up about,” he said. “We’ve talked about toughness all year long. We’re reading Jay Bilas’s book “Toughness.” I think this is one of those times when it’s going to come in handy. We’ve got to pick ourselves up and we’ve got to be tough.”