Despite facing adversity as early as the first quarter, Sacred Heart was able to get past Spring Garden 60-47 in its debut in the regional tournament at Jacksonville State’s Pete Mathews Coliseum.
“I’m very proud of the way the guys worked and persevered throughout the game,” Graves said. “Things didn’t go our way early because we didn’t play the way we wanted to play, but the boys started to focus enough and continued to the things we’re supposed to do to be able to come out victorious.”
The Cardinals’ game plan changed midway through the second quarter when multiple players got into foul trouble and Spring Garden’s Will Westbrook was playing nearly unstoppable inside, scoring all of the Panthers points until the 5:13 mark in the second.
Sacred Heart (24-6) found itself in an unfamiliar setting when it led only 27-21 at halftime.
While center Diante Wood and guards Kevion Nolan and Quen Williams spent time on the bench in the third quarter with three fouls each, D.J. Heath stepped up to get the Cardinals back in their normal swing of things.
Heath scored four consecutive points while on an 11-0 run early in the second half and scored a total of eight points in the third quarter to help Cardinals take a comfortable 46-30 lead into the fourth.
“I just knew I had to pick it up. I’m a leader on the team and that’s what I’m supposed to do,” Heath said. “It was either win or go home. We want to win, so we’re not going home.”
Spring Garden gave Sacred Heart its closest game since before area tournaments two weeks ago, despite falling by 13. Westbrook led the Panthers (14-14) with 20 points and 12 rebounds. Jay Prater added 15 points.
Sacred Heart was led by Heath, who scored 21 points and pulled down seven rebounds. Wood added 13 points, while Nolan had nine points and Williams had eight rebounds and seven points.
Sacred Heart will face Class 1A, Area 12 opponent Ragland in the final on Friday at 5:20 p.m. Ragland defeated Collinsville 53-48 on Tuesday.
Sacred Heart and the Purple Devils have met three times this season with the Cardinals winning the first contest by three, the second by 14 and the area tournament championship by 23. That doesn’t mean Sacred Heart is overlooking its familiar opponent, though.
“I’ll put it like this, if you don’t beat them the fourth time, you go home,” Graves said. “Really there is no in between, there’s no trick, there’s no magic, you have to come out and play every time you play. It doesn’t matter if you play them four times, one time or not at all, you still have to come ready to play.”
Brandon Miller covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575 or follow him on Twitter @bmiller_star