Spain Park advances to 3rd Final Four in last 4 years

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor

HANCEVILLE – After losing to Hewitt-Trussville in the Elite Eight exactly one year ago, a season in which Spain Park beat the Huskies four times during the regular season, the Jaguars sought redemption this year. It didn’t matter who they beat, they just wanted another trip to the Final Four.

“Of course that was on our mind going into the game,” Chase said of this year’s Elite Eight matchup. “It was just 365 days ago, that I was walking into the interview room second. It was one of the worst losses of my career, and we’re human, so of course it was on our mind.”

This time around, the Jags had to go through Vestavia Hills, a team they had beaten three times in the regular season. And again, Spain Park was challenged. But this time around, despite struggling in the first half, senior Sarah Ashlee Barker wasn’t willing to let her team go down short of the Final Four again.

Barker, who was just 1-8 from the floor in the first half and had just four points, came out in the second half and scored 21 points, including 12 in the final quarter to help her team pull off a comeback and a 42-37 victory, which advanced the Jags to the Final Four for the third time in the last four years.

“After last week’s win, the first thing we said was that next week, we play on a Tuesday and 365 days ago you lost after beating a team four times in a row,” Barker said. “I personally made sure we were focused on practice and not lagging off, because that would have lost us the game. That’s what was different than last year.”

Her strong second half really started in the final seconds of the third quarter. With Spain Park trailing 29-27 and having trailed for the majority of the third quarter, Barker hit a jumper with four seconds left in the period to tie the game going to the final frame.

That was part of a nine-point quarter for Barker, who was starting to catch the hot hand.

“Of course when you get a shot to go, you get a boost of confidence,” Barker said. “I’ve always been told to keep shooting and they’ll eventually start to fall and they did.”

And from there, her confidence soared throughout the fourth quarter.

Vestavia was able to reclaim the lead at 32-30 with 5:49 left to play, but Barker then made two layups in the next 1:30, one of which came off a steal, and also added a free throw to put the Jags in front 35-32.

From there, she sank four consecutive free throws over the next two minutes to help Spain Park take a strong 39-32 lead.

Vestavia immediately answered with a 5-0 run to get back within two points, but with time running out, Barker made three more free throws down the stretch, while the Rebels had no answer.

That capped off a 25-point game for Barker that also featured six rebounds, five blocks, four steals and three assists. She finished 7-18 from the floor and 10-12 from the free throw line.

But the struggles early were evident.

After taking a quick 7-2 lead in the opening minutes and eventually taking it to 9-4, Vestavia answered with a 10-5 lead to close out the first quarter, which led to a 14-14 tie at the end of one.

“It’s the fourth time we’ve played them,” Chase said. “Obviously we beat them three times, so there was a little bit of a favorite-underdog scenario. What do you do when you try to beat somebody you haven’t’ beaten in three games? You shorten the game. We made some mistakes and they took advantage.”

Again, Spain Park came out in the second quarter and started on a 4-0 run to jump up 18-14. But from there, the Rebels went on an 8-2 run to take their first lead of the game at 22-21 heading into the half.

“Personally, that was probably the hardest first half I’ve played in my career,” Barker said. “It wasn’t just because I was missing shots, it was our whole team turning it over and not knocking down shots. When the whole team is down, it hits your confidence.”

Coming out of the break, it looked like the same trend was going to continue when the Rebels drained a 3-pointer with 4:21 to play in a slow period that put them in front 27-24.

They were able to extend the lead to as many as four late in the quarter, but Barker’s two shots late in the period tied it and swung the momentum into Spain Park’s favor.

In addition to Barker, MacKenzie Culpepper had eight points and Avery Masdon added seven. The Jags also had four different players finish with six rebounds in a strong effort on the glass.

Now, Spain Park will advance to the Final Four looking to claim a second state championship in the last three years and to at least make the team’s third finals appearance in the last four years.