Second-half surge propels Panthers past Appalachian, on to regional final

Spring Garden’s John Welsh goes in for an open basket against Appalachian in the Class 1A Northeast Regional semifinals on Wednesday at Jacksonville State University’s Pete Mathews Coliseum. Photo by Shannon Fagan.

By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director

JACKSONVILLE – The message from Spring Garden boys basketball coach Levi Hatcher to the Panthers at halftime was simple.

The Panthers held Appalachian to just 21 first-half points. If the Panthers could do that again, Hatcher stressed, then “the odds are in our favor.”

They did just that, and then some.

Third-ranked Spring Garden went on a 17-4 third-quarter run and outscored the Eagles 16-7 in the fourth to take a 58-32 victory in Class 1A boys Northeast Regional action at Jacksonville State University’s Pete Mathews Coliseum on Wednesday. It was Spring Garden’s first regional win in four years.

Next up for the Panthers (27-4) is a showdown with No. 5 Skyline, a 59-32 victor over Faith Christian in the other 1A boys semifinal on Wednesday. The Class 1A Northeast Regional final is set for Monday at 4:45 p.m.

“That was a good second half from our group, good defensive effort,” Hatcher said. “We talked about at halftime Appalachian has some good guard play. They’ve got some size and they’ve got some guys who can shoot it. To hold them to 21 points in the first half was a good test for our defense there.

“We came out with a good defensive mindset, which led to a more focus and intense half-court set on offense. I thought we pushed it well. We came out in the third quarter, ran some sets and were able to get some good looks. Our guys were really disciplined coming out of halftime. It was a good win for us.”

Leading the offensive charge for the Panthers was junior forward John Welsh. Welsh scored 16 of his game-high 23 points in the second half. He also had 12 rebounds, four assists, four steals and two blocks in the game.

Welsh proved to be a nightmare match up for the Eagles (20-10).

“I knew coming in he could score a quiet 20, just in talking to other coaches and watching him on film,” Appalachian coach Brent Patterson said. “He’s good. He killed us inside. You could tell he’s strong. He got a lot of back cuts.”

Several of those back cuts came off Panther screens.

“Coach Hatcher gives me screens, so that helps me get a better angle down there,” Welsh said.

“When you’ve got a guy who is as big as he is, if you’re multi-dimensional, who do I put on him?,” Hatcher said of Welsh. “Do I put a bigger on him to help him drive? Do I put a guard on him which allows him to post or shoot over the top?”

The Eagles didn’t have an answer to any of those questions.

Early on, the two teams battled to a 12-12 tie at the end of the first quarter. Spring Garden then went on a 13-9 run in the second to take a 25-21 lead at the break.

But then Welsh and the Panthers began to pound and pull away in the third.

“We’ve talked about for the last two months finish the possession, finish the drill, finish whatever it is that you’re doing, finish the quarter. Usually good things come when you can finish the possession and hold them to one shot,” Hatcher said.

“We just made a concerted effort to focus on some of the things that they ran on offense so we’d be ready for defense. We had a couple of little calls right there to start (the second half) with that the guys executed to perfection. They did a great job with that. All across the board the whole game we rotated very well.”

Junior forward Connor Bates added 12 points for the Panthers. He also grabbed seven rebounds, a pair of assists and a pair of steals. Senior guard Cole Bailey rang a pair of treys and had eight points. Chapel Pope and Jake Welsh both finished with five points. Jake Welsh also had 11 rebounds.

Sophomore guard Jackson Woodard topped the Eagles with eight points. Junior guard Abraham Mena finished with five points.

“They’re a really well-coached team,” Patterson said of the Panthers. “Defensively, I thought they were in the right spots. It’s tough to score against a team that has five kids in the right spots who play really hard. Hat’s off to Spring Garden.”

Spring Garden’s Connor Bates makes a move around an Appalachian defender during their Class 1A Northeast Regional semifinal game on Wednesday at Pete Mathews Coliseum in Jacksonville. Photo by Shannon Fagan.
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