The Spring Garden girls have another date with basketball destiny. The Panthers meet R.A. Hubbard of Courtland on Thursday at 4 p.m. in the AHSAA Class 1A state championship game. Spring Garden advanced with a 48-38 win over J.F. Shields on Monday after leading 33-15 at halftime.

“It wasn’t as pretty as we like but it doesn’t matter right now, we’re at the state championship game,” Panthers head coach Ricky Austin said afterward in the postgame media conference.

Another win at the BJCC Legacy Arena in Birmingham will earn Spring Garden’s sixth state title in girls’ competition. The Panthers’ first title came in 1987. Others followed in 2004, 2005, 2008 and 2016. None of that history is lost on current players.

“We know that the history has led us here and we’re trying to make more history and go on for next year,” said sophomore guard Payton McGinnis, whose mother (Jana McGinnis) and aunt (Dana Austin) were standouts on the 1987 team.

In its semifinal win, Hubbard was paced by sophomore center Kee-Undria Bolden with 18 points, junior forward Charm Sausberry and sophomore guard A’Nautica Bibbs with 13 rebounds and four points. Bibbs is the daughter of 2000 Class 1A boys tournament MVP Reprobatus Bibbs.

After Monday’s game, Austin was less concerned about Hubbard and more concerned about his team getting away from its strengths during the second half of the win over J.F. Shields. He hoped time in the gym yesterday and today will correct that.

“I think that the biggest, most important thing right now is to make sure we come back over here who we are and be who we are,” Austin said.

The Panthers built a 33-15 halftime advantage by limiting Shamya Johnson, Shields’ 6-foot-3 sophomore center, to no points and one rebound in the first 16 minutes. Meanwhile, Spring Garden center Tiyonna (Bootsie) Rogers, six inches shorter than Johnson, had 17 points and 10 rebounds at intermission. Rogers scored four of the game’s first six points and said the early success gave her confidence.  

“We really didn’t know what Bootsie could do against her. We were just hoping,” Austin said. “Early, she came out and made some baskets and we’re, ‘Hey, we’re going to be OK here.’ Then that kind of just disappeared.”

Shields outscored Spring Garden 16-6 in the third quarter and got the first basket of the fourth to cut Spring Garden’s lead to 39-33. With about six minutes to play, the Panthers spread the court and went to a patient offense, looking for uncontested baskets or free throw opportunities. The next two baskets belonged to Spring Garden, layups by McGinnis on feeds from Kerstin Bryant. With 2:55 left Spring Garden led 43-33.

“Kerstin and Payton really played well down the stretch there, really read each other,” Austin said. “Kerstin sees the floor really well. She made a really bad turnover and she looked at me and said, ‘I’ll make up for it.’ She did. She made two great back-door passes to Payton.”

With 59.2 seconds left, McGinnis hit both ends of one-and-one for a 45-35 advantage. Shields broke a four-minute scoring drought with a basket at 2:28 but didn’t score again until netting a 3-pointer with just 49 seconds on the clock. A.J. Broome made one free throw then Savannah Dempsey hit two to set the final score.                                     

Rogers ended with 19 points and 13 rebounds. McGinnis also had a double-double with 14 points, 11 rebounds and three assists. Dempsey tallied 14 points and grabbed four boards. A.J. Broome had one point, six rebounds and three assists. Bryant didn’t score but contributed six assists and six rebounds.  

To earn its trip to Birmingham, Spring Garden defeated Skyline 46-25 in the Northeast Regional championship game on Feb. 22. The Panthers led 23-10 at halftime and 39-15 after three quarters. Rogers had 11 points and seven rebounds and earned tournament MVP honors. McGinnis scored nine points, Dempsey eight, Broome seven, Macy Reedy six and Bryant five.

Bryant also had eight rebounds and four assists. Broome added six rebounds and five assists. Dempsey and McGinnis joined Rogers on the all-tournament team.