BIRMINGHAM — Ever wonder how Spring Garden’s girls so often wind up playing for 1A state championships, even when taller, longer and more physically imposing opponents win warmups?
As the Panthers’ semifinal victory over taller, longer and more physical Loachapoka on Monday showed, they almost always have coaching and fundamentals on their side.
It’ll take an opponent that’s at least as good fundamentally and better physically to beat Spring Garden. Who knows if Phillips, the Panthers’ opponent in Thursday’s 4 p.m. state final in Legacy Arena, is that team?
Phillips looked impressive in beating Linden 75-46 in Monday’s semifinals, but Spring Garden looked vintage in beating Loachapoka. It’s the same formula that helped the Panthers play two close games with 4A power Anniston this season, winning one.
It’s the same formula that’s helped Spring Garden win five state titles, four under current head coach Ricky Austin.
Spring Garden held Loachapoka to 10-for-51 shooting, and even the Indians’ top scorers struggled. Colby Cox banked in two 3-pointers en route to 14 points, and she was 5-for-12 from the field. Kaitlin Hill’s 12 points came on 4-for-22 shooting.
Hill also went 3-for-4 at the free-throw line, accounting for all of Loachapoka’s free throws.
It was no accident. Point guard A.J. Broome usually guards the opponent’s quickest player, and she had Hill on Monday.
“This time, it also happened to be the best player on the other team,” Austin said. “Our strategy was to get our heels on the 3-point line, sit back and wait on her to come to us.
“That can be a little dangerous sometimes, but we felt like we could always have two more people helping. We wanted her to see three people every time she touched the ball.”
The Panthers wanted to make Hill’s life hard without fouling her, because she’s a strong free-throw shooter. They started denying Cox later in the game, but the focus was to deny Hill.
“Don’t give any second-chance opportunities, and try to keep the ball out of one’s (Cox’s) hands when she made some shots,” Austin said.
Spring Garden’s Tiyonna “Bootsie” Rogers finished with a game-high 20 rebounds, and the Panthers outrebounded Loachapoka 46-30. Both stats stand out, considering the size and length Loachapoka presented in the post.
Turns out, Spring Garden’s second-leading rebounder might have been the most significant player in all of that. Payton McGinnis came away with eight points and eight rebounds, but she did more to keep the lane clear for others to rebound.
“Second-chance points for them were very small, and we were very concerned about that, coming in, them being very aggressive rebounding,” Austin said. “Payton probably should get credit for more than eight rebounds, because she boxed out unbelievable.
“It was textbook, how well she boxed out tonight, and a lot of players got rebounds because she was boxing out so well. To me, that was the difference in the game, and us making some free throws.”
Oh yes, free throws. Spring Garden hit 12 of 14. Rogers was 5-for-5, which should count as points in the post. It was big, because Loachapoka’s length made it difficult to get shots to the basket in the post.
It starts with coaching, and one rarely sees a Spring Garden team that lacks in motivation.
This year’s Spring Garden team lives with how last season ended. They lost the state final on a free throw, which followed a controversial loose-ball foul call with no time on the clock.
“We looked at each other when we got back to the locker room and said, ‘We will be back,’” McGinnis said. “Every day at practice, we stay by that word. Every day at practice, and Coach ‘Rat’ (Austin) always tells us, you’ve got to have a chip on your shoulder.
“The coaches, the players and the fans even have a chip on their shoulder, and we’re going to hope to come out on top this year.”
Then comes in-game motivation. Rogers’ big second half Monday, which featured 12 of her game-high 17 points and 12 rebounds, came after a lackluster first half. She got an earful from her coaches at halftime.
“Coach Dana (Austin) and Coach ‘Rat’ (Ricky Austin) came in and said, ‘You’re scared,’” Rogers said. “I just sat there, and I had to come out in the second half and get better, and that’s what I did.
“That’s what they did. They scared the mess out of me.”