SAND ROCK – Sand Rock senior point guard Cade Ballenger is about as unselfish as they come. He’s just as satisfied to provide an assist to his teammates.
But when situations are presented for Ballenger to take on more of a scoring role, he can certainly do that as well.
He proved that against ninth-ranked Spring Garden on Saturday in the Class 2A, Area 12 boys basketball championship game.
Ballenger sank five 3-pointers and connected on all six of his free-throw attempts in the fourth quarter. He finished with a game-high 23 points to go along with six rebounds, four steals and four assists in the Wildcats’ 65-57 victory.
Ballenger’s all-around effort helped earn him the tournament’s Most Valuable Player honor.
“It’s really just about the team,” Ballenger said. “Whoever’s hitting, we’re getting behind them that night.
“We beat them the past five times, six now, so I knew there was a huge target on our back. We had to go out there and play a pretty dang good game. We couldn’t just play basketball. We had to play a great game.”
And the fourth-ranked Wildcats (22-5) delivered after falling behind early.
Spring Garden (19-10) came out of the gate building an 11-2 edge, but the Wildcats cut their deficit to six at 16-10 by the end of the first quarter.
But what really ignited Sand Rock’s offense was its 3-point shooting in the second. The Wildcats sank four straight 3-pointers — including three from Ballenger — to tie things up at 22-22. Sand Rock ultimately took a 28-26 advantage at halftime.
“Cade made an adjustment in the second quarter based on some things he saw them doing defensively,” Sand Rock coach John Blackwell said. “He came to me and had a call. We actually made that adjustment in the second quarter. It wasn’t a set play or it wasn’t anything we normally run, but it was just basketball. He saw that, and that’s just a testament to what kind of basketball player and point guard he is.
“It’s not just hitting shots. It’s things like when came to me in the second quarter and said ‘Let’s do this.’ That’s what MVP players do. They just don’t go down and hit a bunch of shots. They understand the game. They understand what it takes to be successful. That’s an MVP player to me. That’s what makes him special.”
Ballenger’s signature play of the night came after he suffered a inadvertent blow to the head late in the third quarter. After a brief few moments on the bench, Ballenger was back in action, which included a 3-pointer at the third-quarter buzzer to stretch Sand Rock’s lead to 49-39.
But Spring Garden battled back.
Back-to-back 3-pointers by junior point guard Cooper Austin, who was playing with on a left ankle injury suffered against Westbrook Christian on Wednesday, brought the Panthers within two points at 49-47 with 5:23 remaining in the game.
Ballenger said the Panther comeback gave him a little deja vu.
“The first time we played them this season here, I think we were up 17 in the fourth quarter and they came back (to force overtime),” he said.
“We were just trying not to let that happen again.”
Austin led the Panthers with 15 points, four rebounds, three assists, three steals and three blocks. He was an all-area tournament team selection.
“I couldn’t tell he was hurt,” Panther coach and Cooper Austin’s father Ricky Austin said. “I didn’t think it slowed him down any. I didn’t think it hurt him on defense. I thought he played his normal game. I thought he was mentally tough tonight and played through it. I was proud he was able to gut it out.”
The younger Austin’s treys would be as close as the Panthers would come, as Sand Rock sank 10-of-10 free throws the rest of the way. The Wildcats connected on 19-of-20 shots from the charity stripe for the game.
“We didn’t miss a free throw in the fourth quarter, and that’s one thing I look at,” Blackwell said. “A lot of people look at free-throw shooting percentage. I look at free-throw shooting percentage in the fourth quarter.
“We don’t make a ton of emphasis on free throws in practice, but we shoot them in game-type situations. We don’t go out there and shoot a hundred at a time, but we try to put our kids in position to say ‘All right, this is what you do.'”
Garyn Sharpe rang for 14 points for Sand Rock, including a pair of treys and a 6-for-6 free-throw performance. He also came away with eight rebounds and six assists to help earn him an all-tournament selection.
Jacob St. Clair also connected on two 3-pointers and had 12 points. He, too, was an all-tournament selection.
Kaden Justice contributed eight points and 11 boards. Xander Bradley finished with five points, nine rebounds and four blocks for Sand Rock.
Chaz Pope posted 14 points, including a pair of treys, along with eight rebounds, two assists and a block for the Panthers. Ryley Kirk also connected on a pair of 3-pointers and had 10 points, four boards, four steals, two assists and a block.
Weston Kirk, who battled foul trouble on Saturday, had six points on a pair of treys with seven rebounds, three steals and a block. He was also an all-tournament selection.
Cam Welsh also had six points, three rebounds, two assists and a steal for the Panthers.
“They do the small stuff just a little bit better. That’s what’s made the difference,” Coach Austin said of Sand Rock. “The rebounding and the free throws is what stands out to me, and they don’t turn the ball over. It’s the small things, the things I’ve been harping on the past two or three weeks that we’ve got to be better at to have a chance to beat them. I think we play as hard as they do. I think we make as many plays as they do, but we make more bad plays. We don’t have the fluid they have. They’re really smooth and well-coached.
“We had the lead, but we couldn’t maintain it. I give them credit. They’re just stinking good. They do a great job.”
Spring Garden travels to Area 15 champion and second-ranked North Sand Mountain for subregional action on Tuesday.
“It’s a tough road,” Coach Austin said of the trip to Higdon. “Somebody told me they were leading the nation in scoring. We can’t go there and make it in the 100s and expect to be out on top. We’ve got to handle their pressure and handle their pace. Obviously you’d like it in your gym, but I don’t know if playing in their gym might be better for us. It’s a bigger court and gives us more space to handle the press.”
Sand Rock hosts No. 6 Section in subregional play, also on Tuesday.
“We’re pretty successful in our gym,” Blackwell said. “We’ve had a couple of losses, but it was to a 7A team (Gadsden City) who beat the No. 1 7A team (Vestavia Hills) and the other was to a top-10 3A team in Fyffe. We lot to Fyffe by two, and lost to Gadsden City by 11. We feel real comfortable in our own gym. I’ve already started preparing for Section and seeing what we’ve got to do there.”
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