Westminster falls in Final Four, set for bright future

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor

BIRMINGHAM – For the second time in three years, the Westminster at Oak Mountain girls basketball team found itself in the Final Four of the Class 1A playoffs on Monday, Feb. 25 at Legacy Arena, and while the Knights dropped the semifinal game for the second time, they have a team still built for the future.

Taking on Phillips High School, who made an appearance in the state championship game last year before losing to Spring Garden, the Knights were looking to pull off their second win over a top-four team in their playoff run after taking down No. 1 Pleasant Home in the Sweet 16.

Playing with a ton of confidence heading into the game thanks to those wins as well as wins in 15 of its last 16 games, Westminster was able to open up a 17-11 lead early in the second quarter, but from there on out it was all Phillips.

The She Bears outscored the Knights 27-6 between the second quarter and midway through the third quarter to take a 38-23 lead, before holding on for a 66-48 victory to claim a spot in the 1A state championship game for the second year in a row. 

“I thought it was a really good game where both teams really hustled,” Westminster head coach Dana Gache said. “I love the game and it’s getting better and better each year.

“It’s very hard to get back to the Final Four. Don’t take it for granted that you’ll ever get back. We were so happy to be a part of it again this year despite the outcome.”

A big reason for that outcome was due to the shooting woes from the Knights, as well as the difference at the free throw lines.

Both teams were aggressive in taking shots combining for 120, but neither team shot well from the field, as the Knights went 17-67 from the floor and Phillips went 15-54 from the floor.

“We didn’t hit our season average shooting percentages, which is what we are good at, specifically outside shots,” Gache said. “I felt like we had decent transition and played intense defense but our shots didn’t fall like they usually do. You ask your players to go 100 percent and you have to be content with that when you walk off the court, and I felt like we did that.”

Those 17 made field goals, however, were still enough to keep Westminster in the game, but the free throw line became the difference in the game.

Westminster being a team that likes to shoot from beyond the arc, didn’t get as many opportunities to draw fouls, while Phillips capitalized. The Bears were able to get to the line 41 times and made a remarkable 33 of those 41 attempts.

The Knights still looked good early on, however, thanks to shots finding the bottom of the net.

After falling behind 9-3 in the opening minutes, the Knights responded with a 12-3 run to end the quarter thanks in large part to 3-6 shooting from beyond the arc. That play gave Westminster a 15-11 advantage at the end of one.

Westminster eventually extended its lead to 17-11 and seemed to be in good shape, but Philips had an answer. Thanks to offensive rebounds and steals, the Bears put together a 13-2 run at one point, and outscored the Knights 20-6 in the quarter after falling behind 17-11. A big reason for that was the 10 turnovers from Westminster compared to just five from Phillips in the quarter, which led to a 31-23 halftime deficit.

“A lot of our turnovers were from younger players not being in the proper position on the court,” Gache said. “We knew what they were going to throw at as because they are very good at what they do and execute well, but we missed some assignments and were forced deep into our bench. They’re a great team.”

The Knights’ hole got even bigger in the third quarter Phillips started the period on a 10-2 run to jump up by 16 points, before eventually taking a 43-28 lead into the final quarter of the game.

Westminster, however, wasn’t ready to go home without giving it everything the team had.

“We talked about different scenarios going into the game where we’ve come back on people and people have come back on us,” Gache said. “We were in the Final Four and weren’t going to give up until the final buzzer went off.”

Despite falling behind by 16 points again at 47-31, Westminster battled back to make it a single-digit game at 47-38 with 4:05 left, and then again at 49-40 with 3:18 left.

“It’s a testimony to the scrappiness of the girls,” Gache said. “We had to put some younger girls in because we got in foul trouble and those girls gave it their all.”

Eventually, that uphill battle caught up with the Knights in the closing minutes.

Thanks to impressive free throw shooting over the final three minutes of the contest, Phillips was able to eventually pull away for the victory to end Westminster’s season one game short of a championship berth for the second time in three years.

While it was heartbreaking for the players to see their season come to an end, junior guard Morgan White said the team learned from the first experience in the Final Four and will do so again this time.

“The first time we were here, we were freshman and weren’t very tall,” White said. “I think being that young and getting a little excited, we start to think ‘We got this,’ but then the game goes on and you kind of get too excited and stop making plays. This game we tried to keep our heads and remember that you always have to keep fighting. We’ll do that in the future too.”

And it’s a future that is extremely bright. Westminster only loses three seniors next year in guards Rachel Price and Tori Deen, and forward Macy Mixon.

While those will be three crucial losses, this is a big roster for a 1A team, featuring seven more players than Phillips this year, and will return several eighth and ninth graders, as well as team leaders like White, Virginia Welch and Megan Gache.

Thanks to the impressive senior class that led the team to two Final Four appearances, the young group of players has learned from an experienced group and now knows what it takes.

“Our seniors have been such a rock for us in building this team,” Gache said. “We’ve got eighth graders on our roster and the seniors really bridged that gap to keep our team strong. They kept unity in our team and gave experience in the younger girls. We’re going to have huge shoes to fill next year with our seniors leaving. They have been so strong for us and are our three captains.”

White led the Knights with 25 points and 12 rebounds for a double-double performance, while also posting four steals. She shot 8-18 from the field, 3-5 from beyond the arc and 6-7 from the free throw line. Megan Gache added seven points and 12 rebounds.

Price posted six points and two rebounds in her final game, while Deen added five points and five rebounds and Mixon posted three points and nine boards.