JACKSONVILLE — Anybody who’s passed through Spring Garden and interacted with the high school’s girls basketball team knows it’s anything but “hateful” … except when the Panthers play defense.
Continuing the “hateful” defense theme championed by the Alabama football team this past fall, Spring Garden slammed the door shut on Skyline in Wednesday’s Northeast Regional 1A title game.
The Panthers held the Vikings to 15.6-percent shooting — 9.1 in the first half — and cruised 46-25 to advance to next week’s Final Four in Birmingham.
With its 11th Northeast Regional title in the bag, Spring Garden (27-5) will play South Regional champion J.F. Shields on Monday at noon in Legacy Arena. The Panthers plan to show up as they have all season … in a bus full of hate.
They clearly brought plenty to Jacksonville State University’s Pete Mathews Coliseum on Wednesday.
“I’m shocked what we were able to do, defensively, but that is this group,” Spring Garden coach Ricky Austin said. “They kind of stole Alabama’s football theme early in the year of being ‘hateful.’ They break it down every day on practice, they break it down, ‘Hateful!’
“They do it in a kind way. They’re a bunch of pretty girls, but they do play some hateful defense.”
Austin said the “hateful” team theme came about after he read a newspaper story about Alabama’s defense to the team.
“They were just searching,” he said. “They were hunting something. This is a group, it don’t take a lot to flip their switch.”
Austin switched on extra hatefulness after watching Skyline hit 11 of 21 3-pointers in its semifinal rout of Coosa Christian. He assigned Kerstin Bryant to Skyline’s Bailee Usry and A.J. Broome to Caity Ledwell.
Bryant held Usry to 1-for-12 shooting, 0-for-5 on 3-pointers in what Austin called a performance worthy of most-valuable-player status.
“She was quicker than me, but I just tried to keep her in front of me, and people did a good job helping off and helping me with her,” Bryant said.
Austin said he told Broome before the game that she might end up the MVP without scoring a point. She escorted Ledwell to and 0-for-6 day.
“She was a really good player, and we had already talked about her,” Broome said. “Me and Kerstin couldn’t help off our man, so the other people had to help off the second line of defense.”
Skyline went 7-for-45 from the field, 1-for-17 on 3-point tries. Not surprisingly, the Vikings had two assists.
“We couldn’t get no buckets, and they’ve got a good team,” Skyline coach Ronnie McCarver said. “They’re real strong, put pressure on you real hard. It was hard for us to get any buckets anywhere.”
Usry described Spring Garden as “pretty aggressive on defense.”
McCarver said opponents have figured out that Skyline likes to play a fast-breaking game, but teams that slow the Vikings down make them play to their weakness … halfcourt offense. Spring Garden made it especially tough, which came as a revelation.
“I’d seen them several times,” McCarver said. “I didn’t know they were that physical until you get playing against them. They’re physical.”
Spring Garden didn’t need much offense Wednesday but got it from tournament MVP Tiyonna Rogers, who scored a game-high 11 points. All-tourney pick Payton McGinnis added nine.
Bryant, ever the floor-game presence, turned in five points but grabbed a team-high eight rebounds with four assists, three steals and two blocks.
Broome, who looks to play point first and score second, scored seven points but dished out a team-high five assists to go with six rebounds.
Defense was the story Wednesday, and Spring Garden will need more of it Monday, against 6-foot-3 J.F. Shields sophomore Shamya Johnson. Then again, Austin sees similarities between his current team’s defense and that of others he’s taken to Birmingham.
“The only difference is we’re not as long,” said Austin, hoping to lead Spring Garden to its sixth state title, fifth on his watch. “The only difference is we’re not as long, but the toughness, the understanding their role on defense and how they play as a unit and how they play for each other defensively, I haven’t had a group that played any better than this group does on defense.”