SPRING GARDEN – Spring Garden coach Ricky Austin hasn’t felt like the Panthers have played their best basketball of the season.
That is until Wednesday.
Behind what Austin called ‘a complete game’, Class 2A, No. 9 Spring Garden was able to overcome being outsized by Westbrook Christian by connecting on 12 3-pointers to extend its season with a 67-51 victory in the Area 12 tournament.
The Panthers (19-9) got their usual production from point guard Cooper Austin (24 points, including three 3-pointers) and forward Weston Kirk (20 points, including five first-half treys), but it was Spring Garden’s supporting cast that also proved a huge key against the Warriors.
Ryley Kirk collected 12 points, including three treys. Two of those 3-pointers were daggers to the Warriors in the fourth quarter. Chaz Pope also did his part to help give the Panthers balance. He finished with nine points.
“When I first got them in the gym and saw what a toll football season had on them physically and mentally, I swore to myself ‘Just be patient,'” Coach Austin said. “These guys play too hard. They’re too big of competitors, and it’s been a long, patient year.
“I thought Cam (Welsh) and Luke (Welsh) did a good job on their bigs. Andrew (Floyd) and Andrew (Bates) both came in and did a great job for us. They had some great minutes. I’m very proud of the complete game we were able to play tonight. It feels like we’re ready to play basketball. That’s the first time I’ve felt all year that now we’re ready to play. That was a tough matchup for us, and I just love the response we got out of our guys.”
Speaking of tough matchups, the Panthers will have another one on Saturday when they travel to fourth-ranked Sand Rock with an area championship on the line. The Wildcats have won all three meetings between the two teams this season.
Although the Panthers were firmly in control of Wednesday’s game, they did have a scary moment midway through the third quarter.
Cooper Austin rolled his left ankle and had to come out of the game. He returned with 30.5 seconds remaining in the third and scored five of his game-high 24 points in the fourth quarter.
“As soon as I rolled it, the only thing I was thinking was ‘Oh no,'” Cooper Austin said while icing the ankle in a bucket in the Panther locker room. “The last time at our place in the regular season area game, they made a run in the fourth quarter and cut it to two. I just knew this fourth quarter was going to be big. I just knew I had to get back out there for my team.
“Whenever I got back out on the court, I saw we were struggling scoring a little bit, so I knew I had to keep bringing what I was in the first half.”
When asked how his ankle felt, Cooper Austin said: “All I can say is I’ll be good by Saturday.”
Weston Kirk hopes the other half of the Panthers’ dynamic scoring duo is good to go by then.
“I’m used to me and Coop being there, like we always do, putting up our numbers like we’re supposed to,” he said. “When he went out, I was like ‘I’ve got to be the point guard.’ I was relieved (when he came back). I always like having Cooper out there with me so somebody else has got to dribble the ball. I’d rather have him doing it.”
Spring Garden built a 20-9 first-quarter advantage and held a 40-29 edge at halftime. The Panthers led 55-43 at the end of three quarters.
The Warriors were still trailing by 12 with 3:30 remaining in the game, but Ryley Kirk slammed the door with his back-to-back 3-pointers to put the Panthers up 65-47.
“We know it’s in him,” Coach Austin said. “He’s been down on himself, but there’s no one who can help you but you sometimes. He’s been working and working, and that’s the fruit of it tonight. I’m proud for him because he’s most definitely put the work in.”
Cade Phillips led the Warriors with 21 points. Cooper Long, Christian Morris and Jackson Bowman each finished with eight points.