Spain Park clinches berth in 2nd straight title game

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor

BIRMINGHAM – With 3:30 to play in its second consecutive Final Four matchup at Legacy Arena on Thursday, March 1, the Spain Park girls basketball team trailed Lee-Montgomery 37-29 and was on the wrong end of a 15-5 run.

After trailing by 11 points entering the final quarter of their 2017 matchup, the Jaguars had no panic in them a year later down by eight points late in the third quarter.

They used that experience as well as a grueling schedule that forced complete games all season long led to the Jags flipping a switch and ending the game on a 31-14 run to take down the Generals by a final score of 60-51, as Spain Park punched its second consecutive ticket to the state championship.

“I was glad we were able to gut it out,” head coach Mike Chase said. “We played a really tough schedule this year so our guys knew how to fight and started chipping away and once we got over the hump, it was still pretty tough.”

Sarah Ashlee Barker seemed to be the spark offensively late in the third quarter that turned the game around as she was part of three key plays in a row.

First Barker was able to drain a 3-pointer from the corner in front of her own bench to cut the Jags’ deficit to five points at 37-32. That was all of the confidence she needed to spark her aggressiveness.

On Spain Park’s next possession, Barker got the ball in that same corner and drove aggressively to the basket down the baseline for a hard-fought layup and two more points.

The next play she made seemed to be the biggest of the game, however.

Still up 37-34 with three minutes left in the quarter, Lee-Montgomery’s Zippy Broughton, who had flashed her deep range and quick moves the entire game, brought the ball up court looking to end Spain Park’s quick run with a jump shot of her own just inside the 3-point line.

Instead, Barker leapt up and swatted the ball away at the top of her shot, then grabbed the ball and threw it ahead to Claire Holt for an easy layup to bring the Jags within a point at 37-36.

Spain Park went on to end the quarter on a 13-2 run to take 42-39 lead as the Jags got all of the confidence they needed to spark the win in the final quarter.

“Last year we went out as runner ups and I have that in the back of my head every time I step foot on the floor,” Barker said after the game. “We were down by 10 and somebody needed to step up and bring the energy. Those three possessions for us really helped our energy and helped us get back in the game.”

Spain Park took the lead at 38-37 and gave it up just one more time the rest of the game, before going on to win 60-51.

“We’ve had to play 32 minutes just to survive our schedule this season,” Chase said of the late surge over the final quarter-and-a-half. “We knew we were going to be in a situation to make a run late in the game. We hit a couple of shots and that sparked our defense, then our bench was lit and we forced them to call a timeout. The energy just rolled over.”

Chase went on to say that playing three overtime games in three of last year’s final four games and being down by 11 twice helped the team’s confidence this year.

In the first half, despite all of that experience last year, the Jags started out a bit timid and struggled shooting from the field.

It led to Spain Park shooting 9-29 from the field and 3-11 from 3-point range, while the Generals were 6-10 from 3-point ranged, thanks in large part to Broughton’s 5-7 shooting from beyond the arc as she ended the first half with 17 points.

The Jags were also out-rebounded 25-16 in the half and 9-6 on the offensive boards, something Chase knew was key.

“They beat us by 10 on the boards, which is something we didn’t do a good job of,” Chase said. “We talked about it before the game, and I think that’s what kept them in the game today.”

It was a first half of stats that Chase wasn’t happy to see and led to him challenging the girls at the half.

“The halftime speech was real laid back,” Chase said with a sarcastic smile on his face. “No it was pretty fiery. These guys have played for me since sixth grade so I know when to push a few buttons and we pushed a few buttons at the half.”

Clearly the speech set in midway through the third quarter as the Jags went on to shoot 13-27 from the field in the second half and 3-7 from beyond the arc, while Barrett Herring and several others got big rebounds inside to post 15 boards in the half.

Another big adjustment made in the half was Holt switching over to guard Broughton as she limited the Rutgers’ signee to 10 points in the half.

“I used to play with her on my AAU team and knew she could shoot and was lightning fast,” Holt said. “I knew with us going on a run, she was going to be pressing. I was more comfortable being closer to her knowing she was going to pull up, and I could tell she was wearing down a little bit later in the game.”

Holt went on to lead Spain Park in scoring with 22 points on 9-18 shooting, while adding four rebounds.

Barker added 13 points on 5-10 shooting as she and holt shot 50-percent from the field. She also added nine rebounds as she was a rebound shy of a double-double for the third consecutive games.

If that wasn’t enough, Barker also tallied four blocks, four steals and four assists to give her at least four in all major statistical categories.

Bailey Bowers added nine points on three key 3-pointers, while Ahrielle Parks had eight points with four clutch free throws in the final minute of the game. Herring added seven points to her nine boards.

The Jags will take on McGill-Toolen in the 7A girls state championship game on Saturday, March 3, at 4 p.m. at Legacy Arena.

Photos available at Shelbycountyphotos.com