BIRMINGHAM – As if the Spring Garden Lady Panthers needed any extra motivation playing in the Class 1A state basketball semifinals once again, head coach Ricky Austin dug out an ace in the hole.
A few days ago, Austin showed his team last year’s state championship game loss against Keith.
He showed them not boxing out properly.
He showed them getting out-rebounded.
He showed them getting pushed out of the way.
He showed them crying on the bench following the game.
“He said, ‘Just remember that feeling’, and we really took that to heart,” senior guard Madison Sides said. “We were so mad when we got done watching it. We played terrible. It didn’t even look like us out there.”
On Monday afternoon at Legacy Arena in Birmingham, the Lady Panthers earned a second shot at playing against the defending state champions. And, they got some much sought-after revenge, winning 50-34.
The victory sends fourth-ranked Spring Garden (30-4) back to the Class 1A state title game on Thursday at 4 p.m. against Linden (19-6). Top-ranked Keith’s season ends at 31-3.
“We talked about this was who knocked us off (last year). We’re the underdog, and we like this role. Let’s play with a chip on our shoulder,” Austin said. “I thought we hustled out of the locker room. I thought we hustled to timeouts. I thought we hustled for loose balls. I thought we come back on the floor in the third quarter as hungry as we were in the first quarter.”
A big key in the Lady Panther victory was rebounding. Spring Garden held a 36-19 edge in that department, a stat Austin was most proud of following the game.
“That’s an incredible job for us,” Austin said. “I thought we did an excellent job tonight of just being stronger in beating them to the ball when it come off the rim. I’m as proud of that 36-19 rebound stat as any we’ve got on here. That’s amazing. That’s a great stat for us against a team of that quality.”
Spring Garden never trailed in the game, taking an 11-2 advantage at the end of the first quarter and a 23-17 edge at halftime. The Lady Panthers built a 39-27 lead heading into the final quarter.
Senior center Tykeah Rogers led the Lady Panthers with 23 points, 15 rebounds, two assists and two steals. Sides stepped up for 10 points, eight rebounds, four steals and two assists. Junior guard Savannah Dempsey delivered eight points, five rebounds, two assists and a steal. Sophomore forward Kerstin Bryant finished with five points.
“We were playing our speed of the game, not theirs,” Dempsey said. “We actually ran the floor on them. I felt like last year we didn’t see the floor very well. We didn’t hit our shots. We were just playing to them, but this year we made them play to our side.”
But just as important as the Lady Panthers’ offensive numbers were the ones they put up on defense.
They held senior center Zykia Pettway to just four points. During last year’s battle, Pettway posted 12 points and 10 rebounds.
“Our defense wasn’t too bad last year, but it wasn’t as good as we should have done it,” Rogers said. “This year, I think we prepared more on our defense and more on us. Last year, we focused more on what their players could do than ourselves. This year, we focused more on ourselves and what we could do on the court.”
“Tookie (Rogers) was out-sized inside, and she did an excellent job of using her strength keeping good position on Pettway,” Austin said. “I thought that was key to limit her. She really hurt us down here last year. We didn’t have an answer for her.
“We used Madison as help side off of her, just kind of leaving one player roaming around. Madison made good decisions when she needed to go help and when she needed to slide over for the off-side rebound.”
Senior guard Harriett Winchester led Keith with 17 points. Ambreya Snow added six points. Shatavia Moore finished with five points and six rebounds.
Now that the Lady Panthers have gotten their revenge on Keith, they have just a couple of days to prepare for another championship challenge against Linden. Linden defeated Decatur Heritage 58-44 in Monday’s other Class 1A girls state semifinal.
“Beating the team that beat us last year is huge, but the thing for us right now is to stay humble and confident,” Sides said. “I know our theme this year has been finish, and we’re going to play like it’s just another game. We’re going to have fun like we have been, and we’re going to finish the season off with a win.”