SPRING GARDEN – Spring Garden junior forward Neely Welsh put in a very early Friday morning phone call to her head basketball coach Ricky Austin. She told him she was sick at her stomach and didn’t feel well.
“But you can count on me being there,” she said, referring to the top-ranked Lady Panthers’ Class 2A, Area 12 championship game against Sand Rock on Friday evening.
“I’m not going to leave the team. I’m going to be there and I’m going to play,” Welsh continued telling her head coach. “I knew I had to be there.”
Judging by her court performance, it was hard to tell that Welsh was under the weather. She netted 17 points, including three 3-pointers, and grabbed five rebounds to earn an all-area tournament selection. Tournament Most Valuable Player, eighth grade point guard Ace Austin, posted 16 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, two steals and a blocked shot to help the Lady Panthers win their first area championship in 2A with a 53-41 victory.
“It feels great knowing I can go on the rest of my life and say that me and my friends, our names are down for the first 2A area title,” Welsh said.
Coach Austin said when he first saw Welsh on Friday, she was “puny.” He didn’t think she would be able to go, but she held true to her words earlier in the day.
“At 1:30 (Friday afternoon), I was getting me another five (spot on the floor), but we got some fluids in her. She started drinking well, getting some water, some Pedialyte and that kind of stuff in her, and she was able to hang on,” Austin said. “That was a very gutty 32 minutes our of Neely. I’m proud of her toughness tonight.”
Welsh scored eight of her points in the first quarter, which the Lady Panthers (30-2) led 18-2.
But the Lady Wildcats (16-12) had a gutty performance within themselves the remaining three quarters as well.
Behind five 3-pointers in the second quarter — two from McKenna Ballenger and three from Lanie Henderson — Sand Rock cut the Lady Panther lead to 24-21 at halftime.
Two more Ballenger treys and another from Henderson in the third quarter brought the Lady Wildcats within a basket at 38-36 heading into the final quarter.
Henderson led the Lady Wildcats with 18 points and 11 rebounds. Ballenger rang for 12 points, all on treys. Both players, along with teammate Haley Grace Lisenbee, were all-area tournament selections.
“We had it in the fourth quarter a two-point game, and we couldn’t have been in better shape,” Sand Rock coach Lisa Bates said. “McKenna did a great job coming in. We knew they weren’t going to guard her. We’ve been telling her she’s got to shoot it and she can. She stepped up tonight and I was proud of her.
“It took Lanie a while to get going, but once she did, she looked like she wanted to score. That’s what we need her to do because she can.”
But despite the momentum Ballenger and Henderson provided the Lady Wildcats, Spring Garden took it back early in the fourth quarter. A pair of Sarah Kate McKay baskets and another Welsh trey pushed the Lady Panther lead out to 45-36 with 5:45 remaining.
“I give it to them (Sand Rock). They did a good job on us tonight, but we just found a way,” said Ace Austin, who now has 959 points for her young career. “They kept pushing, and I could see some of our players getting frustrated a little. I was like ‘It’s OK. It’s our gym. We’re ahead. We’ve got fans here to support us, so just keep it up. They’re not beating us on our home court. We haven’t been beaten on our home court all year, and we’re not going to get beat now.'”
Spring Garden’s defense took over down the stretch. The Lady Panthers allowed Sand Rock just five points in the final four minutes. Spring Garden was also aided by six trips to the free-throw line in the final 1:46.
“The foul column (a 20-4 Lady Panther edge) told the story,” Coach Austin said. “I know their fans got upset, but people need to know how hard these girls work not to foul, how much it is stressed to them every day at practice. We do defensive work with towels, with our hands tied behind our back holding towels so we don’t foul.
“That was a great defensive effort in the second half to be able to slow them down. I was very proud of our defense. I don’t think anything was given to us. I think our girls earned every piece of what they got tonight.”
McKay managed eight points, four boards and a pair of steals for the Lady Panthers. Abbey Steward sank a pair of crucial third-quarter 3-pointers and had eight points. Lexy Adkison finished with four points and grabbed nine rebounds.
Adkison joined Ace Austin and Welsh from Spring Garden on the all-tournament team.
Spring Garden hosts Area 15 runner-up and ninth-ranked Ider in subregional action on Monday. Sand Rock travels to second-ranked Pisgah, also on Monday.