Panthers play with plenty of motivation against Winterboro, clinch Northeast Regional berth

Spring Garden’s John Welsh shoots inside the paint against Winterboro during Class 1A sub-regiional action Friday night. Photo by Shannon Fagan.

By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director

SPRING GARDEN – The Spring Garden Panthers certainly weren’t lacking any motivation for Friday night’s Class 1A sub-regional basketball game against Winterboro.

They hadn’t been to the Northeast Regional Tournament at Jacksonville State University’s Pete Mathews Coliseum since 2020.

They lost a heartbreaking sub-regional game last season to Oakwood Adventist, and with a win, had a chance to potentially play them again in the regional semifinals for some Valentine’s Day revenge.

Then on Friday morning, statements were made by the Bulldogs in their local newspaper about how the Panthers hadn’t faced a team like them.

Whatever the third-ranked Panthers chose as their motivation did the trick. They whipped Winterboro by the final of 59-35.

Panther junior forward John Welsh, who led third-ranked Spring Garden with 21 points, took a lot of his motivation from all of the above.

“They can talk all they want to. You see how it turned out for them,” Welsh said. “We keep our mouths shut and we just play our game.

“We were talking in the locker room how it’s been four years since we’ve been to JSU. We used that as motivation too. It feels good. We all wanted to change how we felt last year, and we’ve changed it so far. We’ve just got to keep rolling.”

After a slow start scoring by both teams, Spring Garden rolled out to a 17-5 first quarter lead, even with 6-foot-7 post player Jake Welsh picking up two fouls.

With Jake Welsh on the bench, the Panthers were served with even more motivation. They were able to maintain their 12-point edge heading into halftime at 24-12.

“We had guys who were motivated and they were ready to step into some big shoes,” Panther coach Levi Hatcher said. “We were able to shift some rotations around. Noah (Barber) came in and gave us some good minutes. I know he didn’t have too many points, but did a great job defensively. It allowed us to move Connor (Bates) to a four and John (Welsh) to a five. The effort and intensity never dropped off no matter who was on the court.”

That was also something Jake Welsh was proud of.

“John, Noah, Connor, they’re all role players and they stepped up. They knocked down shots that were really big,” Jake Welsh said.

With halftime over, Jake Welsh was able to come back in the game and make his presence felt again. He scored eight of his 15 points in the second half. He also grabbed 17 rebounds.

Cole Bailey and Bates connected on back-to-back 3-pointers early in the third, helping Spring Garden extend its lead to 47-28 after three quarters.

Bailey rang for 13 points, including 11 in the second half.

“It took Cole a minute to get into it,” Hatcher said. “He had a couple of bobbles, but credit to him. He didn’t let that affect his play going forward. He did a great job of being able to slash.”

But perhaps more importantly than Bailey’s points was his defense on Winterboro senior guard Brandon Hunter.

“Number 0 (Hunter) for them is a workhorse, and Cole usually draws one of the better offensive players on a night-in, night-out basis,” Hatcher said. “It didn’t feel like he had 16 (points), but he had to work for them.”

Other than Hunter’s 16 points, no other Bulldog reached double figures. JeMareo Clegg came away with six points and Kaden Jones finished with five points.

Chapel Pope added seven points for Spring Garden.

“Our style is to grind it out on the defensive end, then push it,” Hatcher said. “I think when we want to run we can run with anybody. There’s a time and place for it and tonight we picked and chose our times.”

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