By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director
SPRING GARDEN – The Spring Garden Panthers got a tune up for Saturday’s Class 1A, Area 10 basketball tournament on Thursday night by hosting Class 2A, No. 4 Pisgah.
It was a matchup not originally on the Panther schedule, but according to Spring Garden head coach Levi Hatcher, it was a game that “kind of fell in our lap.”
“They reached out to Coach (Draevan) Bowman and asked if we needed a game. I told them ‘Yeah if we can play it at home.’ We’ve been on the road so much of late,” said Hatcher, who agreed to a return trip to Pisgah next season. “(Bowman) said that would be a perfect game. That’s a team we might face at JSU, like a Skyline or someone like that – gritty, like to play fast and have shooters. Absolutely they got us ready for the area tournament. It was a good test for our guys.”
Class 1A, No. 3 Spring Garden proved up for the challenge. The Panthers built a 15-point lead 31 seconds into the fourth quarter, but the Eagles proved they were far from being out of the game.
Thanks to some uncharacteristic Panther turnovers, they cut the lead down to three on a basket by Luke Gilbert with 53.3 seconds remaining.
But Spring Garden senior guard Chapel Pope helped save the day by hitting four free throws in the final 41.8 seconds, lifting the Panthers to a 63-56 victory.
“I went to him (Pope) and said ‘You may have had a couple of turnovers, but your free throws were clutch,’” Hatcher said. “They’ve got so many good shooters. Any time it’s a one-possession game, you better hope they don’t get an open shot. He hit a couple to push it to five and made it two possessions. He hit two more and helped us keep it at arm’s length a little bit right there. That was clutch. He stepped up there and knocked them down.”
Pope’s free throws aside, Hatcher was concerned with how the Panthers (23-4) almost let things slip away.
“When we went in the locker room, I said ‘All right guys, for 28 minutes we played pretty good. We handled their pressure. You got shots you wanted and broke the press. What did they do differently?’ They all just looked at me. It wasn’t a trick question. They said ‘Nothing.’ I said ‘You’re right,’” Hatcher said. “We’ve got a junior-senior team that should be able to handle that pressure. We had a turnover and then we let that one affect the next one, then all of a sudden it was a like boulder that we just didn’t know how to stop.”
As Hatcher said, Spring Garden played well for almost 3 ½ quarters. The Panthers led 15-8 after one and 33-26 heading into halftime. By the end of the third quarter their lead had swelled to 53-41 and to 56-41 on a made free throw by Noah Barber with 7:29 remaining in the game.
But then the Panthers had to sweat it out the rest of the way.
Connor Bates led the Panthers with 17 points, including a pair of 3-pointers. John Welsh netted 13 points. Pope and Jake Welsh scored 10 apiece, with Jake Welsh also pulling down 16 rebounds.
“Jake is starting to get a little better at not just trying to attack the ball. He’s trying to get himself in a better position to attack the ball as opposed to just going through people’s back,” Hatcher said. “I know people complain and think it’s a foul, but as long as he jumps up and doesn’t make contact it’s fine. He’s doing a good job of getting himself in position where he can do that.”
Cole Bailey and Noah Barber finished with seven and six points respectively for the Panthers.
Caleb Jenkins led Pisgah (12-9) with 12 points. Brodie Overdear delivered 11 points. Jakob Kirby collected 10 points, including a pair of 3-pointers.
Gilbert and Mason Holcomb had eight and seven points respectively for the Eagles.
“To me, this was like a playoff environment. It was a good thing for our guys to see,” Hatcher said. “We’ll get to rest them (on Friday) and be ready to roll on Saturday.”
The Panthers will face the winner of Friday’s Coosa Christian-Jacksonville Christian game on Saturday at 6:30 p.m.