SPRING GARDEN – The last time Sand Rock and Spring Garden’s boys battled on the basketball court, it took overtime to ultimately decide things.
The rematch on Friday night in the Garden didn’t take an extra session, but it was just as thrilling.
Spring Garden junior point guard Cooper Austin fired off a corner 3-pointer at the buzzer that clanked off the rim, allowing the seventh-ranked Wildcats to escape with a 50-48 victory.
“I thought we were in a good man position. We screened them out and played well,” Sand Rock coach John Blackwell said of the game’s final defensive positioning. “This bunch doesn’t get real emotional, and that’s good in a game like this because they do hold their composure. We were playing against good team. Spring Garden, you know they’re going to hold their composure. It was just going to be one of those games.”
It was one of those games, indeed. Neither team held more than a five-point advantage for the duration of the contest.
Ninth-ranked Spring Garden (13-5, 2-3 Class 2A, Area 12) held a four-point cushion at 41-37 with 6:24 remaining on a basket by Chaz Pope. A jumper and a 3-pointer on back-to-back possessions by Jacob St. Clair put the Wildcats (15-3, 6-0) back up 42-41 with 5:27 to go.
The two teams continued battling down the stretch, with Sand Rock senior guard Garyn Sharpe connecting on a basket at the 3-minute mark to put the Wildcats up two at 47-45.
An Austin 3-pointer with 2:23 to go gave Spring Garden the lead again at 48-47.
On the Wildcats’ ensuing possession, sophomore forward Kaden Justice was fouled and sent to the free-throw line for a pair of shots. He made the first to tie the game at 48, but missed the second which was rebounded by the Panthers’ Cam Welsh.
Spring Garden couldn’t score on its possession, but then Sharpe sank another shot inside the key to give the Wildcats a 50-48 advantage with 1:27 to go.
Both teams traveled on alternating possessions, with Spring Garden holding the ball with 8.4 seconds remaining.
Panther head coach Ricky Austin called timeout to draw up a couple of plays. Senior forward Weston Kirk was going to inbound the ball, but found no one open after surveying the court, prompting him to call another Panther timeout.
“We had two plays called,” Coach Austin said. “We anticipated them going man. When we called timeout (the second time), we noticed they were still man. I still liked the call we had, but when they saw the lineup, we called timeout and I thought I’d change it a little bit.
“We called two plays in the second timeout. Both plays were to get the ball in Weston’s hands, either for him to make a play for himself or make a play for a teammate.”
Following the Panthers’ second timeout, Cooper Austin in-bounded the ball to Kirk. Kirk dribbled to the left side of the goal, but the Wildcat defense was there to deny him a shot.
Kirk then kicked the ball out to Cooper Austin for the game’s final shot, but it rimmed out as time expired.
“Cooper did a great job of helping (Kirk) out when he got jammed and couldn’t get a shot off,” Coach Austin said. “Cooper wanted the last shot and he flashed in behind him. As soon as the ball went up, I couldn’t see it. I guess the daddy coach came out in me. I was scared to look when he let it go. I was just listening for the crowd. When I heard Sand Rock’s crowd erupt, I knew it didn’t go in and that was the ball game.”
“We told our guys a two sends it to overtime. We’ve already been there once this year, and we’re OK with another one,” Blackwell said. “I said just don’t give up a three.”
Cooper Austin led all scorers with 14 points, including a pair of treys. He also had four rebounds, three assists and three steals. Weston Kirk collected 12 points, eight rebounds, two steals and an assist.
Ryley Kirk, who scored his 1,000th career point back in December, connected on three treys and had nine points. He also had three rebounds, two assists and a steal. Welsh posted eight points, eight rebounds and two blocked shots. Pope finished with five points, 11 boards, two assists and a block.
Justice rang for 13 points, including a pair of treys, to top Sand Rock’s scorers. Sharpe added 11 points and seven boards. Cade Ballenger sank three 3-pointers and had 10 points with six assists and four rebounds. Xander Bradley contributed nine points and seven boards. St. Clair finished with seven points.
“We missed a lot of shots we’ve been hitting, but I told them you’re too good of shooters. Some of those shots are going to start falling, and they did,” Blackwell said. “You’re not going to go a whole game and not hit some of those shots. They just kept plugging away. The main thing is you screen out, you pull rebounds and you play good defense. It overcomes some bad offense.”
“It was a good ball game,” Coach Austin said. “Give them credit. They came into our gym and beat us, but I feel like we made them work hard to earn it. I liked our guys’ effort, but we’ve got to find a way to win those games.
“You go back (to last season). We lost a regional championship (to Jacksonville Christian) with the ball in our hands. We lost to Sand Rock and we had the ball in our hands, and we had our hands on the ball again tonight. You’re not going to win all those, but eventually you’re going to win one of those. Including me, we’ve got to be better at the end of games when we get a ball in our hands like that.”
Spring Garden 66, Sand Rock 59
SPRING GARDEN – It’s been a while since the second-ranked Spring Garden Lady Panthers have been tested in a basketball game, but they knew they were going to be in for a fight when Class 2A, Area 12 rival and ninth-ranked Sand Rock came to town Friday.
The Lady Wildcats managed to jump out to an early lead and never would go away. They trailed Spring Garden by a basket with four minutes to go until junior guard Sarah Kate McKay rattled home a 3-pointer to stretch the Lady Panther to five. Spring Garden held on down the stretch to win by the final of 66-59.
McKay finished with 15 points, including a pair of treys, for the Lady Panthers (19-2, 5-0).
“She had a shooter’s shot tonight. She had nice touch,” Spring Garden coach Ricky Austin said of McKay. “That thing bounced on the rim I think two or three different times and fell in. That’s Sarah. She’s got one of the purest shots. She probably works harder at shooting than anybody on this team as far as year around, get in this gym and knowing what her job is. That was probably the second biggest thing (Friday night), her soft-made shots. I was proud for her because she earns the right to be known as a shooter. She works at it.”
Just a tad bigger than McKay’s trey in the fourth quarter was the three 3-pointers junior guard Abbey Steward made in the second quarter. Steward’s shots helped tie the game at 23 after Spring Garden was down 16-9 at the end of the first quarter. She finished with nine points.
“I told Abbey the difference in the game was her threes. They give us that cushion, and that’s kind of what we played on the rest of the night,” Austin said. “We kind of played on a little bit of an advantage, and it happened on her shooting. That’s what her job is. We expect her to do a lot of other things, but we expect her to make open threes. She give us a nice little cushion there we had an opportunity to play with, and luckily we kept that.”
Steward’s treys provided the spark the Lady Panthers needed, as they forged ahead 32-28 at halftime, but as Austin said, Sand Rock simply would not go away.
The Lady Wildcats briefly jumped back out in front early in the third quarter at 33-32 on a 3-pointer by McKenna Ballenger, but Spring Garden answered right back with a McKay trey. Including that shot, Spring Garden went on a 19-10 run to take a 51-43 edge.
But again, the Lady Wildcats battled back.
They crept within a basket with 4:15 remaining in the game on a bucket by senior forward Maci Brown at 53-51, but another McKay trey on the Lady Panthers’ ensuing possession led to a 13-8 run down the stretch for the final.
Ace Austin led the Lady Panthers with 20 points, eight assists, six steals, five rebounds and three blocks. Neely Welsh contributed 12 points, three boards, two assists and two steals. Lexie Adkison finished with 10 points, eight boards and a block.
Lanie Henderson topped Sand Rock’s scorers with 19 points, including three treys. She also added four rebounds, three assists and a pair of steals.
Arleigh Beard rang for 17 points, including three treys of her own. She also had three rebounds, three assists and a steal. Brown delivered six points, seven rebounds and four steals.
Sand Rock coach Lisa Bates is proud to see Beard step up for the Lady Wildcats in the absence of several injured players.
“She’s giving us good minutes and doing some good rebounding for us, but tonight she scored like we know she can,” Bates said. “We’re hoping that’s going to help with our confidence. I’m pleased to see her stepping up. I really feel like she’s one who has upped her level of game for us.”
Even though the Lady Wildcats lost, Bates has seen her team grow from the first time they played Spring Garden, a 56-33 setback on Dec. 14.
“We’re finally starting to click with some other people stepping it up,” she said. “We’re going to get better and better. I really believe this group of girls is going to keep improving now that we’ve kind of figured out who we are without Caley (Garrett) and Haylee (Stansell).
“I’m really pleased with our progress, but we’re not satisfied. I feel like here at the end we’re going to make a run and give some people some fits. I’m excited to see what we can do as we keep getting better.”