By Al Muskewitz, East Alabama Sports Today
Less than four minutes into the first quarter the championship game of the Champions Girls Thanksgiving Classic was turning out to be not much of a game.
Oxford was showing its athleticism and opening a 10-point lead before Spring Garden ever came close to scoring.
But never underestimate the value of a technical foul on the bench. Or two of them.
Spurred by the Ts on its bench and then coach Ricky Austin, Spring Garden came to life, wiped out two early double-digit deficits and once it had the lead held on to beat Oxford 59-55 for the tournament title.
Lady Panthers guard Ace Austin, who sealed the victory with a pair of free throws with 3.4 seconds to play, was named tournament MVP. She scored 15 points in the championship game despite picking up her fourth foul with 2:27 left in the third quarter.
“My dad just keeps telling us just keep playing,” Austin said. “Our team, we never get down, really. We had a few bad calls we thought, so we had a chip on our shoulder at that moment, so we kept pushing.”
Oxford jumped out to a 7-0 lead against a Spring Garden start that reminded Ricky Austin of the way his team’s first two games in the tournament started. Listless, missing shots, turnovers.
Some call by the officials didn’t set right with the Spring Garden bench and it got popped with the first T. That didn’t set well with Austin and his continued protestations earned him a T as well.
The coach said he didn’t say much to get T’d up, but admitted “I deserved it and I wanted it.”
Oxford’s Lauren Ellard hit three of the four technical free throws and the Lady Jackets had a 10-0 lead with 4:35 left in the first quarter.
It took a little while for spark Austin was looking for to catch. Oxford extended its lead to 18-7 on back-to-back 3s by Ellard and LaMya McGrue, but then it was all Spring Garden the rest of the half.
The Lady Panthers outscored Oxford 27-13 the rest of the half, led 34-31 at the half and never lost the lead. The big part of the run came in the final five minutes of the half when Spring Garden went on a 15-6 finish, giving up just two 3-pointers.
“After we got those two techs, that’s when our team was about to turn it out,” Ace Austin said. “Our team was all mad. No one was complaining, we just all had that look on our face like we’re done with it, we’re just having to show out now.”
“We have not played with the spark and energy we needed to the last two games and I’ve been concerned about it; I just wanted to know if it was there,” Ricky Austin said. “I kind of felt coming over here, the nature of the way it’s been in the past, I always felt like it’s been tough and I thought if the situation’s right early let’s get some energy and see what we got and it just so happened it happened.
“I wasn’t too happy about a 10-0 lead when it happened. If it wasn’t coming today, it was coming next game. If we didn’t play with more energy somewhere down the line I was going to have to try to find a fire somehow. It wasn’t preplanned coming in, I just thought I’ve got to find out who we are. If the technicals situation hadn’t happen, you were fixing to find out what the power of a timeout was fixing to be like.”
They were up by 11 in the final minute of the third quarter before Oxford started to rally. The Lady Jackets got within four twice in the final two minutes, three after a Justice Woods 3-pointer and two after McGrue hit the second of two free throws with 4.9 seconds left.
The Lady Panthers then inbounded the ensuing possession where Austin was fouled and made both of her clinching free throws.
“That’s what a point guard wants to do,” she said. “A point guard wants to be the one to end the game like that. We work on that in practice. We’re like, you’re shooting, if you’re down two, you miss it, you run.”
Under those ground rules, they might have had to run back to Spring Garden had she missed.
The two teams meet again Tuesday in Oxford and Lady Jackets coach Melissa Bennett said she will be interested to see how her team reacts.
In addition to Austin, the rest of the all-tournament team included Spring Garden teammate Neely Welch, the championship game’s leading scorer (22 points); Oxford teammates Ellard and Xai Whitfield, Alexandria’s Ashley Phillips, Ohatchee’s Jorda Crook and Collinsville’s Tyla Tatum.
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