SAND ROCK – The first time Spring Garden and Sand Rock’s girls played this season on the basketball court back on Dec. 14, Ace Austin and Kayley Kirk were the x-factors in the second-ranked Lady Panthers’ 14-point win.
On Friday night, it was senior post player Neely Welsh who came up big for Spring Garden.
Welsh scored a game-high 31 points in leading the Lady Panthers to a 60-56 victory that clinched the Class 2A, Area 12 regular season title. But it took nearly every one of Welsh’s points for Spring Garden (19-1) to hold off the feisty fifth-ranked Lady Wildcats (18-3).
The Lady Panthers built as much as a 20-point lead with less than four minutes remaining in the third quarter. Sand Rock found a spark off the bench in the form of senior guard McKenna Ballenger.
Ballenger scored eight points, including a pair of 3-pointers, within 1:32 span that helped bring the Lady Wildcats within 10 at 51-41 at the end of the third quarter.
Sand Rock managed to cut its deficit to a basket twice with less than two minutes to go in the game, and had two good looks at the basket on 3-pointers by Katelyn StClair and Caley Garrett to take the lead, but those shots wouldn’t fall.
Welsh essentially ended things with a basket with 25.8 seconds remaining for the final.
“I think you saw the potential out of both teams tonight,” Spring Garden coach Ricky Austin said. “I thought you saw our potential throughout the game, and I thought you saw their potential coming back. That’s why we’re two good teams and two good programs. We know down the road we’ve got to go through each other, and I thought you saw exactly that tonight. It’s the same old, typical Spring Garden-Sand Rock girls battle. Nobody is going to give up.”
“I knew this was going to be a big game and I knew I had to come in and make a difference,” Welsh said. “I just had to be one of those players tonight to help my team out.
“It was a hard-fought game. We didn’t expect anything less. You can’t come up here to Sand Rock and not expect them to compete. It’s one of those things you learn from, and I think it did us good in the long run.”
Welsh made much of her presence felt at the free-throw line. She connected on 9-of-11 shots from the charity stripe for the game, including a 5-of-6 performance in the first quarter, which Spring Garden led 18-13.
Welsh connected on a pair of 3-pointers in the second quarter to help extend the Lady Panther lead to 33-21 at halftime.
It appeared as if Spring Garden was going to turn the game into a rout on back-to-back 3-pointers by Kayley Kirk that pushed the Lady Panthers out in front 51-31 with less than four minutes to go in the third, but then Ballenger provided the Lady Wildcats with a much-needed spark. Her second trey at the 1:20 mark of the quarter brought Sand Rock within 10 at 51-41.
“I was proud of her coming in and playing well,” Sand Rock coach Lisa Bates said. “She does a good job on defense and she can shoot. She gave us a good offensive spark.”
Sand Rock’s newfound surge continued into the fourth quarter. Baskets by Lanie Henderson at the 1:54 and 1:20 marks brought the Lady Wildcats within a basket. Sand Rock also had two chances to take the lead, but couldn’t get their 3-point shots to fall down the stretch.
Ace Austin added 12 points for the Lady Panthers, including a pair of treys. Kirk finished with nine points and three 3-pointers.
StClair led Sand Rock with 15 points. Haley Grace Lisenbee had 11 points. Garrett contributed 10 points. Henderson had nine points and Ballenger finished with eight points.
“We still didn’t start as well as I thought we should have,” Bates said. “We played catch-up the whole game, but we did fight to the end. We had two chances. Two of our better 3-point shooters took good shots. They weren’t forced shots. They were two good shots to pull ahead there, and I thought we were going to. I was proud of the fight, but there are a lot of things we can do better. We missed a ton of shots in the first half, as far as taking the ball to the goal. I feel like we’ve got to do a lot better on that.”
It’s also a game Coach Austin said his Lady Panthers can learn a lot from as well.
“We didn’t handle some situations real well, but give them credit. They exposed some things, but I think it made us better for sure,” he said.
The two teams could potentially see each other again for a third time this season in next weekend’s Cherokee County Tournament, as well as the upcoming area tournament, and potentially the Class 2A Northeast Regional if both teams make it that far.
Sand Rock 62, Spring Garden 42
SAND ROCK – Sand Rock junior forward Kaden Justice helped the Wildcats punch fifth-ranked Spring Garden in the mouth early.
Justice scored seven of the Wildcats’ 11 first-quarter points. He finished with 24 points, seven boards and seven blocked shots in leading Sand Rock to a 62-42 victory that puts them back in the thick of hosting the area tournament.
“He’s really starting to shoot the ball well and that comes with staying in the gym,” Sand Rock coach John Blackwell said of Justice. “We tell kids you’re going to be good at what you spend a lot of time doing. There’s no secret to being a good shooter. If you want to score, then you’ve got to spend a lot of time shooting. He does. The work is paying off for him.”
Justice helped serve Sand Rock (12-9) a 10-0 lead before Spring Garden (10-5) made a 9-1 run to close out the first quarter, trailing 11-9.
Justice rang for 10 more points in the second quarter to help the Wildcats build a 31-22 edge at halftime. Sand Rock maintained a 43-34 advantage at the end of three quarters and went on a 19-8 run in the fourth for the final.
Jacob StClair delivered 17 points, seven assists, four steals and four boards for the Wildcats. Jacob Cornejo contributed eight points and five rebounds. Bradley Jackson grabbed nine boards.
“The first game we played at their place, we felt like they were more physical than us,” Blackwell said. “The loose balls were theirs. Every 50-50 ball seemed to go their way. We talked a lot about that. We also talked a lot about screening out. We missed a lot of screen outs and gave them a lot of second-chance opportunities in game one. We really tried to focus on that. We’ve tried to focus on it since Christmas and New Year’s.
“We’re finally healthy. The first 15 games we played, 13 of those 15 we had at least one person out or multiple people sick with the flu. We would start pretty good, but we couldn’t finish a game. Not making excuses because those nine games we lost and the other teams played well, but I do think since we’ve gotten everybody back, I think we’re playing better. It’s starting to come together.”
John Welsh topped Spring Garden with 17 points, six boards, five steals and an assist. Jacob Welsh added 14 points, eight rebounds, four steals and a pair of blocks. Cooper Austin finished with nine points, three rebounds, three assists and two blocks.
“We played from behind all night,” Coach Austin said. “Coach Blackwell’s kids fought and we didn’t. I thought they wanted it more than us. They out-hustled us. They were more aggressive than us. I’m very disappointed in our guys. We didn’t respond to the aggressive play.”