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SURVIVE AND ADVANCE: Cooper Austin's trey, free throw lift Spring Garden into regional final

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Spring Garden's Chaz Pope brings the ball up the floor. Spring Garden boys played Skyline in the Northeast Regional basketball tournament Thursday night at Jacksonville State University. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)

JACKSONVILLE — Spring Garden missed its share of shots in its Class 1A Northeast Regional semifinal Thursday, but the Panthers hit in big moments.

Cooper Austin’s game-tying 3-pointer, go-ahead jumper and crucial free throw came in the biggest moments, and Spring Garden held off Skyline 49-46 to advance.

The Panthers (23-6) will play Area 11 rival Jacksonville Christian in Monday’s 4:45 p.m. regional final, both playing for a berth in the state semifinals in Birmingham. The two teams split regular-season games before Spring Garden won the right to host the area tournament via coin toss and won the area final.

JCA won in its first AHSAA-sanctioned regional appearance earlier Thursday, beating Lindsay Lane.

For Spring Garden coach Ricky Austin, the scenario conjured up a conversation he had with JCA counterpart Tommy Miller after their first meeting this season.

“I’m so proud for JCA, so proud for Coach Miller,” Austin said. “That’s big for their program. He’s been around a long time. I was pulling for them, and not for the fact that I think it’s an easier route. I genuinely like JCA’s program. I like their kids. I like Coach Miller.

“I shook his hand after the very first time we played. We beat them at our place, and I said that one don’t mean nothing. We have bigger games down the road.”

Big shots in big moments got Spring Garden to the biggest game with JCA this season.

Austin head faked then drained a 3-pointer from the top to give Spring Garden a 24-22 lead at halftime Thursday, dropping a thud on Skyline’s 10-0 run to take the lead just before that.

Weston Kirk, who led Spring Garden with 21 points, sank a 3-pointer with four seconds left in the third quarter, giving the Panthers a 37-34 smile in their quarter-break huddle.

In the end, Cooper Austin’s takes became the biggest makes. His 3-pointer in front of Spring Garden’s bench tied the game 45-45 with 3:09 left. His jumper from the opposite side made it 47-45 at 1:10.

“It’s just the game coming to you,” said Cooper Austin, Ricky’s son who finished with 15 points. “You don’t ever want to force a shot. Daddy always said let the game come to you and play your game and big shots will drop.”

Kirk and Skyline’s Collin Lockhart each hit the first of two free throws, setting Cooper Austin up at the line with six seconds left. He missed the first but hit the second to make it 49-46 ahead of a timeout.

Father gave son encouragement after the first free throw.

“I just said, make the next one,” Ricky Austin said. “That was really it. I said use your legs, and he apologized when he came over there. That’s the first thing he said was, ‘My bad, coach.’”

Skyline needed a 3-pointer to tie, but Kordell Talley’s try from in front of Skyline’s bench banked and rolled around the rim before coming out at the buzzer.

Spring Garden survived on a day when the Panthers shot 30.6 percent from the field, including a 4-for-16 start in the first quarter. Eight of their 18 field goals came from behind the 3-point arc, but they missed 21 tries from out there.

“I’m proud of this bunch for being resilient and finding a way to win,” Ricky Austin said. “Shooters weren’t real hot, but I pulled an old (John) Calipari thing out on them this week, and I told them at halftime tonight.

“You’re not going to make all of them, but good grief, you can’t miss all of them, so keep shooting. We made just enough to make a difference.”

Defense helped. Lockhart scored 12 points and Jaylon Clements 11, but Spring Garden held Skyline (31-3) to 31.6 percent shooting.

Neither Vikings head coach Ronnie McCarver nor players from his boys team showed for postgame interviews. McCarver also coaches the girls team, which lost to Spring Garden earlier Thursday.

Sports Writer Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter: @jmedley_star.

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