None were bigger than her 3-pointer late in the fourth quarter in the Class 1A Northeast Regional girls final against second-ranked Woodville on Tuesday night at Jacksonville State University’s Pete Mathews Coliseum.
It was her trey with 2:10 to go that ended a late Woodville rally, propelling Spring Garden to a 45-39 victory that sends the Lady Panthers to Birmingham for the first time since 2010.
Dempsey, who hit 3-of-5 treys in the game, finished with 13 points.
“Coach Rat (Ricky Austin) has been preparing us this whole time to make shots,” Dempsey said. “I just want to thank my teammates for getting me open and believing in me for making those shots.”
Once down by as many as 17 points late in the second quarter, Woodville (22-8) had worked its way back to within a bucket at 36-34 off a trey by senior forward/center Krysta McGinness with 2:34 left. Momentum had definitely switched, and fourth-ranked Spring Garden (32-2) desperately needed a basket.
She calmly drained her third and final trey of the night, pushing Spring Garden’s lead back to five at 39-34. Her shot seemed to relieve the pressure Spring Garden had of closing out the game. Three of four free throws by junior center Tykeah Rogers in the game’s final 25 seconds helped the Lady Panthers earn the victory.
“Savannah’s 3-point shot toward the end of the game was a big, big shot for us,” Austin said. “Tykeah’s two free throws, after we missed several, I thought that was very big. I thought Madison Sides did an excellent job of being a point guard for us tonight. She got them in foul trouble and got some critical players out early for them that changed the game, but there’s nothing bigger than the rebound situation. I think that was the story of this game.”
As Austin said, his Lady Panthers won the battle of the boards 26-21.
“They’re a great offensive rebounding team, and I thought that was a big difference in the game. I thought we controlled the boards really well,” he said.
Early on, Spring Garden looked as if it would rout their competition. The Lady Panthers went on a 12-5 first-quarter run and held a 26-13 advantage at halftime. Spring Garden still had a comfortable 33-25 lead heading into the fourth quarter before Woodville made things interesting.
“Their coach (Stormy Stevens) is not going to let them quit,” Austin said. “He’s got some great players. He had some seniors with a lot of grit about them, and we knew they weren’t going away, but I’m proud of this bunch for their grit. I thought we battled really hard for 32 minutes. I thought we battled hard from the opening tip to the end of the game. It was a great game, a good game to watch.”
Stevens said the difference to him was Spring Garden’s shooting percentage from the floor. The Lady Panthers connected on 15 of their 29 shot attempts, a 51.7 percentage from the floor which included seven 3-pointers.
“I didn’t think they would shoot that well,” Stevens said. “The defense we came out in, they had open shots. I had three people guarding four of them. I gambled and I lost.
“We come out (in the second half) and we knew we had to put pressure on them, just to try and get a momentum swing. We did. We won the second half, but this one’s on me.”
Rogers led Spring Garden with 16 points and 11 rebounds. A year ago in the regional semifinals against Skyline, Rogers got in early foul trouble and was a non-factor down the stretch of the Lady Panthers’ 58-51 loss. She got redemption during this year’s tournament and was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
“I think I was a little more prepared this year and a whole lot more mature about what I was going to do,” Rogers said. “I think I thought about it a little more, what I can bring to the game and what I need to bring to the game.”
Dempsey, along with Sides (four points, five assists), joined Rogers on the all-tournament team. Spring Garden senior guard Darian Gaines finished with six points.
Senior forward/guard Kelsi Sisk topped Woodville with 14 points and six rebounds. McGinness and junior guard Sara Baugh both contributed eight points. Senior guard Tiffany Isbell finished with five points.
Sisk and McGinness were all-tournament selections, along with Talladega County Central’s Tiarrial Duncan and Appalachian’s Stephanie Metzler.
“I couldn’t ask for any more than what we did,” Stevens said. “We played out hearts out, but it just didn’t fall our way.”
Spring Garden advances to Monday’s Class 1A state semifinals at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, where it will take on South Regional champion and top-ranked Brantley (27-2) at noon. Brantley defeated Pleasant Home 35-19 in the South Regional final in Dothan on Tuesday.
“It’s just a great feeling,” Austin said of his Lady Panthers’ trip to Birmingham. “It doesn’t feel any less than the first time we went. This group deserves it. They have been so focused since this point last year. They’ve worked so hard. If you could put a meter and measure how hard this team has worked, their togetherness and their focus, we’re at the top with that.
“I haven’t had a team that has worked any harder and was more focused than these girls. That’s where the fun is as a coach, to see them get their reward. They’ve really earned it.”
Sides is proud to see this season’s team add to the history of Spring Garden basketball.
“Our tradition holds us to a high standard, and we want to carry that on,” she said. “It’s exciting. None of us have ever been. We’re really looking forward to it. We’re going to be nervous I know, but once we settle down and play our game, I know we can do something.”