As the Purple Devils held a 7-1 lead with three minutes left in the first quarter, they began to stall, having Nicole Reaves dribble the ball near half-court for nearly two minutes as time ticked off the clock. But, when Ragland coach Rush Rutledge called a player to the bench to quickly discuss a plan, Spring Garden attacked, gaining all the momentum it would need to win the Class 1A Northeast Regional semifinals, 41-32.
“I wasn’t really sure what was fixing to happen, but sometimes you just go with your gut,” Spring Garden coach Ricky Austin said. “When they stood out there and held it that early, the score wasn’t big enough for us to come out. The gut feeling was not to go. I was content to go ahead and let the time run out in the quarter. I wasn’t willing to change the game just because they wanted to change the game.
“But, while that was going on every one of my players was looking at me like, ‘When are you going to let us go, coach? When are you going to let us go?’ When I saw the girl run over to the sideline, I said, ‘All right, let’s go, two-three trap.’ Then, boom, it blew up like a stick of dynamite.”
The attack turned the game from a six-point deficit for the Garden to an 11-7 lead at the end of the first quarter after it was almost a what-if situation. Austin added he wouldn’t have told the Panthers to pounce if his team didn’t keep looking for his command.
Spring Garden guard Haley Motes, who finished with four points and 11 rebounds, said the team’s energy “just hopped up” after the charge, and with Ragland star Kailey Echols on the bench for the remainder of the half with two fouls, the Panthers extended their lead as the Purple Devils looked for a way to stop Spring Garden’s offensive attack, led by Darian Gaines, who finished the contest with a team-high 11 points.
“As bad as we played, don’t take anything away from Spring Garden,” Rutledge said. “We’ve been over here the last six years and played them four of the six. I take nothing away from them, but tonight we didn’t play well. We played poorly.”
Even when Echols returned to the game, she was unable to get Ragland going, fitting in perfectly to the plan set in place by Spring Garden assistant coach Dana Austin. Echols ended the game without recording any points.
“I didn’t even realize that,” Austin said in his post-game press conference. “When we face a tough post player like Echols that’s the No. 1 assignment. I’ve got to say something about Tori Pierce, who plays the middle. To play the point zone, you’re middle has to be tough, physical and match anything that comes in the paint.”
Spring Garden’s lead hovered around 10 points throughout the second half before the Panthers became Austin’s 11th team to advance to the Northeast Regional title game in the past 12 years.
The Panthers have won eight of their previous 10 trips. Spring Garden will face a familiar opponent in Cedar Bluff, which defeated Skyline 73-57 on Monday to advance. Austin’s team has defeated the Tigers three teams this season, most recently in the championship game of the area tournament, 65-39, a week and a half ago.
“Cedar Bluff knows us, and we know them,” Austin said. “They might have the best athlete in 1A basketball down there, Audrey Hargitt. She’s got my vote it. She can change the game at any time.
“We just want to play, and we’ll have to be ready for the first quarter next game.”
Sports Writer Brandon Miller: 256-235-3575. On Twitter @bmiller_star.