CENTRE – Spring Garden junior forward Neely Welsh paid a visit to the trainer at halftime of the Lady Panthers’ Cherokee County Basketball Tournament championship game against the Cherokee County Lady Warriors.
Her left hamstring was bothering her, and she got it massaged just before the second-half horn sounded to return to play.
Welsh knew how vital her presence on the court meant to the Lady Panthers, particularly on defense. She drew a tough assignment by guarding Lady Warrior sharpshooting guard Karlee Perry, and she wasn’t about to leave the game.
“It’s just one of those things you have to tough through,” Welsh said. “I wasn’t trying to think much about it. The more I thought about how it was hurting the more it would affect me. It hurt when I was sprinting down the floor, but I couldn’t stop because I knew my team needed me. We had a game plan to stop Perry, their main shooter, and I just couldn’t bow out on my team. I had to keep going.”
The Lady Panthers are glad she did keep going.
Welsh held Perry scoreless, and she wasn’t too shabby on offense either. She scored 22 points, including three 3-pointers, and dished out three assists in Class 2A, No. 2 Spring Garden’s 69-33 victory.
“I was worried when her hamstring was bothering her because of her defense,” Spring Garden coach Ricky Austin said. “She had a defensive MVP performance tonight guarding Perry. Neely run her off every screen perfectly. She’s a little bit longer than her, and I thought she give her some problems.
“That’s the first time her hamstring kind of tweaked her a little bit. It was kind of cramping on her a little bit, but the trainer took care of her. She got a little bit better in the second half and had a gutty defensive effort. I’m proud of her for both performances she had, offensively and defensively.”
Welsh wasn’t the only Lady Panther to have a good night on the court.
Eighth grade point guard Ace Austin posted a triple double, with 11 points, 11 rebounds, 12 assists, two steals and a block. Sarah Kate McKay sank three 3-pointers and also had 11 points. Lexie Adkison added 10 points, six boards, two blocks, an assist and a steal. Abbey Steward connected on a pair of treys for six points, and Maggie Jarrett finished with five points.
Mary Hays Johnson and Audrey Green scored nine points apiece to lead the Class 4A, No. 10 Lady Warriors (16-5). Sidney Johnson finished with six points. Ella Garmany grabbed seven rebounds.
Spring Garden (22-2) built a 22-11 advantage in the first quarter and held a 44-24 edge at halftime. The Lady Panthers kept their defensive pressure going in the second half, allowing just six points in the third quarter and three in the fourth.
“We knew they had good shooters,” Welsh said. “A bunch of us stayed and watched them (Friday) night (against Sand Rock). We just had to stop them from the start. We did pretty good.”
“Defensively, I give Coach (Damon) McDonald a lot of credit for that,” Coach Austin said. “He just sees where players are lined up and he just starts yelling their offense out. He does such a great job of breaking people down. That’s a big part of who we are.
“I’m proud of our defensive effort. I never thought we would have held them to that few of points in the second half in their own gym.”
Saturday’s county title is the second straight for the Lady Panthers and their third in the last four years. Spring Garden has claimed 18 county championships since the girls’ tournament began in 1977.
“It doesn’t get old,” Coach Austin said. “I’m just so happy for the girls.
“We break our season down in phases. This is the county championship phase and we want to win because we know what that can do for the rest of your season. It’s a lot of energy, a lot of excitement. It makes you get back to practice and keep working, keeps you focused. It’s important for the next step. We lean on it every year when we can get in this position.”
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