Standing, from left,  Deana Lambert, Hope Bates, Damon McDonald, Abbey Steward, Suzie Carter, Tiyonna Rogers, Chloe Jarret, Breanna Rogers, Neely Welsh, Lexy Adkison, Madison Jennings, Emma Jane Roger, Dana Austin and Ricky Austin.  Kneeling, from left, Kristin Tierce, Macy Reedy, A.J. Broome, Kerstin Bryant, Payton McGinnis, Katie Williams, and Raegan Rogers.

Chris Tierce

Spring Garden captured the AHSAA Class 1A girls’ basketball state championship Thursday and exorcised an old demon at the same moment. The Panthers defeated Phillips of Bear Creek 52-38 at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex for the school’s sixth state title in girls’ basketball. The Spring Garden finished 32-3 while the Bears ended 29-4.

Everyone celebrated when the final horn sounded and again when the state championship trophy was handed out but no one was happier than junior guard A.J. Broome.

“It’s great,” Broome said. “We know that our hard work has paid off.”         

Broome was whistled for a foul just as the 2017 championship game was about to complete four quarters in a 43-43 tie. She had to watch helplessly as R.A. Hubbard eighth-grader Alexandria Orr made the second of two free throws with no time on the clock. After Thursday’s championship game victory Spring Garden head coach Ricky Austin said Broome had lived with that disappointment for a full year.  

There were plenty of heroics as the game played out. All-tournament selection Macy Reedy, the smallest player on the court in size but not in heart, connected on four 3-point attempts in the first quarter without a miss. She netted a trey with 6:26 on the first quarter clock for a 3-0 lead and Spring Garden never trailed. Payton McGinnis, Broome and Kerstin Bryant followed with one 3-pointer apiece. Reedy then hit three more triples in the final two minutes and 30 seconds.

“Usually before the game during our warm-ups, I can usually tell. I feel like I have that touch and everything. Then in the games it usually starts and just keeps going. Felt good today,” Reedy said.

Reedy’s final trey came when she made an inbounds pass from just to the right of the Panthers’ basket then scurried to the left corner to wait for a pass from Broome and a wide-open look at the basket at the buzzer. The shot earned Spring Garden a 21-10 lead after one quarter. All 21 points came on 3-pointers. Reedy finished with 12 points and three rebounds.

The 3-point baskets made life somewhat easier for senior post player Tiyonna (Bootsie) Rogers. Rogers did not score in the first quarter but tallied seven of her team’s nine points in the second quarter. The 5-foot-11 Rogers finished with 15 points and 15 rebounds. She was named tournament MVP but was pounded on the inside by Alicyn McCollum, her 6-fot-1 counterpart for Phillips.

“It was kind of physical,” Rogers said. “She was holding me but I just had to keep my composure and that’s what I did throughout the whole game.”

Rogers was shorter than McCollum but quicker and was able to get around her and make three steals on interior passes toward McCollum.  

“That’s what we do every day at practice, we get physical and go after it,” Rogers added.

McCollum took seven shots for the game and made four of them for eight points. She had totaled 29 points against Linden in the semifinal round. Austin said the defensive plan was to eliminate her touches.

“Bootsie got the assignment to guard her but the way she guarded her would not have been possible without the way Payton had the help side. Payton was great help side and then we really tried to put a lot of ball pressure on the guards. When they got in an area on the floor that they wanted to pick their dribble up and look for her, we just tried to make it impossible for them to get a good view or a good vision of her and keep our hands high. … It all worked out pretty well for us,” Austin said.       

Bryant, a senior, had one basket in the second quarter. Her floater from the lane came with two seconds left in the half and pushed Spring Garden’s halftime lead to 30-20. Bryant, one of her team’s primary ball handlers, had just two turnovers against Phillips. She said the Panthers’ regular-season schedule and their semifinal win over Loachapoka prepared them for Phillips’ significant size advantage.   

“I think playing Anniston and Sand Rock earlier in the season, and Haralson County, that really helped, too, helped us prepare. (Phillips’) pressure defense was good and that’s how Loachapoka‘s was and that’s how Anniston and Sand Rock play,” Bryant said.

Bryant ended with seven points and six rebounds.

Midway through the third quarter, McGinnis canned Spring Garden’s only 3-point basket after the first quarter. It moved Spring Garden’s lead to 35-22 and started a 9-2 run by the Panthers to end the third period.

Spring Garden’s final four points of the third quarter and all 11 points the Panthers scored in the fourth quarter came from the free throw line. From the 3:29 mark of the third quarter, Spring Garden players were 15-for20 at the line.

“They were coming out fouling us pretty early in the fourth quarter. That was what really kept us separated from them. You’ve got to think if we had missed a majority of our free throws it would have been a different game,” said McGinnis, who scored eight points, grabbed five rebounds and made three steals.  

In the second half, McGinnis was 2-for-4 at the line and Bryant 2-for-2. Rogers 4-for-5 after halftime following a 1-for-3 effort in the first half.   

Broome underwent shoulder surgery in the offseason and did not play until Dec. 21 against Gaylesville, the twelfth game of the current season. With one arm in a sling, she was unable to run – “and we do a lot of that,” she noted – when her teammates started conditioning. To catch up with everyone else, Broome ran on weekends with former Spring Garden all-state performer Paige Anderson McDonald.

She had also been in a slump from the free throw line at the Northeast Regional tournament and again in the semifinal round against Loachapoka. She was 1-for-3 against the Indians, her team’s only two misses at the line.

“I struggled at the regional tournament so I knew I had to get in the gym and work on that. I knew they would know I was struggling. They would try to foul me. I knew I had to work on it so I could help my team out,” Broome said.

Against Phillips, Broome was 7-for-9 at the charity stripe, all in the decisive fourth quarter. She scored 10 points, pulled down five rebounds and dished out four assists. End of struggle.