Spain Park earns spot in 2nd straight Final Four

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor 

JACKSONVILLE – Heading into their Elite Eight matchup with Huffman on Tuesday, Feb. 20, at Jacksonville State’s Pete Matthews Arena, Spain Park’s girls basketball team sat just two wins away from getting back to the state championship game with a chance to redeem last year’s heartbreaking loss to Hoover in overtime.

Sarah Ashlee Barker came out in the Elite Eight and looked like she wanted to just sprint directly through the next two games and get straight to the title matchup.

Barker started the game with Spain Park’s first 16 points in the opening 9:26 of action and ended the first half with 20 points to help the Jags build a 28-16 lead.

“That start just kind of happened with the flow of the offense early,” Barker said after the game. “Then when they started going in, I just wanted the ball because I was getting open shots and my teammates were giving me open shots by kicking the ball back from the baseline, which allowed me to get wide open on a lot of shots.”

Her teammates finding her was part of a team effort that featured 16 assists in the game to Huffman’s four.

“Sarah Ashlee was hot and coach (Mike) Chase always says when you’re feeling it that he wants you to keep shooting so I was trying to look for her on the fast break and on the kick outs because she started hitting threes,” leading scorer Claire Holt said.

“She kick-started us and that’s one of the things that we put an emphasis on was getting a hot start so whoever was hot I was happy to give it to them.”

Barker’s hot start gave them exactly what they wanted in a 28-16 start and it built a lead the Jaguars didn’t relinquish the rest of the game, eventually building a 31-point lead in the second half, before winning 61-39 to advance to the team’s second consecutive Final Four.

“We thought our number needed to be about 45 points given up,” Spain Park head coach Mike Chase said. “When we got to halftime and they only had 16 points, we knew we were on our way.”

The matchup marked the fourth meeting between the two this season as Spain Park won the first two by 21 and 23 points, respectively, before struggling in the area championship game winning by just three points.

“We said leading up to this game that we wanted this game to be good for our fans and we wanted all of the other people here for other games the rest of the day to be kind of pissed off that it wasn’t a tightly contested game and that’s what we got,” Chase said. “That win was good for us and obviously gives us good confidence.”

A big reason for Spain Park’s success throughout the game wasn’t solely Barker’s offensive performance, or really anybody offensively, but what the team was able to do defensively and on the boards.

The Jags limited Huffman to just 25.5-percent (12-47) shooting from the field on the defensive side of the ball, which allowed for sustained runs throughout the contest.

“What gets lost in the shuffle a little bit is how good we can be defensively,” Chase said. “It was a whole team effort because we did a good job of playing help defense and rebounding the ball.”

Almost more impressive than the defense was the rebounding side of that. The Jags grabbed 45 boards, while Huffman had just 31 in the game. More specifically, Spain park controlled the offensive glass with 20 rebounds on that side of the ball.

“We had 20 offensive rebounds tonight and that’s the best we’ve done against a good team this year,” Chase said. “Those are going to give you some really good second looks at the basket. I’ll take that rebounding advantage every day.”

It led to the Jags getting 22 second-chance points in the game to Huffman’s eight.

Spain Park was led by Barker with 24 points and nine rebounds, as she finished one rebound shy of a double-double for the second consecutive game. She also had four assists in the game. Through the Regional tournament, she now has 43 points and 18 rebounds.

Holt added 14 points, four rebounds, two assists and two steals. Bailey Bowers also had an impressive showing with 10 points, seven rebounds and four assists in the game. Barrett Herring added eight rebounds and six points.

Spain Park is now headed back to the Final Four for the second consecutive year and after last year’s chaotic run to the state championship, they have more confidence than ever.

“All of us have been here before because we have the same five starters and the exact same lineup,” Bowers said. “I remember the first game in Jacksonville last year, I was shaking and it was crazy. This year it didn’t necessarily feel like a home game, but we know Jacksonville so that helped a lot and will continue to help.”

Photo available at www.shelbycountyphotos.com.