Spain Park advances to Elite Eight for 3rd straight year

Published 3:44 pm Wednesday, February 16, 2022

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor

JACKSONVILLE – Trailing 6-0 early against Sparkman in the Sweet 16 at Jacksonville State’s Pete Mathew’s Coliseum, the Spain Park Jaguars faced a quick gut check on Wednesday, Feb. 16, but they didn’t panic.

Playing in their third consecutive Sweet 16, the Jags got comfortable and got comfortable in a hurry, answering the back-to-back 3-pointers from the Senators with a 22-1 run between the first and second quarters to create separation that became the difference in a 59-46 win to cement a spot in the Elite Eight for a third year in a row. 

“I thought we played really, really well,” head coach Chris Laatsch said after the win. “We played hard, and I thought we did a great job of making the extra pass. They do an unbelievable job of pressing and trapping. We worked a lot on that. We had our share of turnovers, but when we did handle it, we finished opportunities. We worked a lot on that, and I thought our kids showed some toughness to finish.”

Following the back-to-back 3-pointers in the first two minutes of the game, the Jaguars found themselves down 6-0 quickly.

But that didn’t last long.

They quickly found their legs, became aggressive on the boards and started pushing the ball up the court.

Colin Turner made his impact throughout the half in the paint, starting with the first points of the Sweet 16 with a dunk that got the Spain Park students involved early.

That started a 15-1 run to end the opening quarter of the game, as the only other point from the Senators came on a 1-2 trip to the free throw line.

Outside of that, the Jaguars got points from five players in the quarter, none bigger than the final five.

Zach Gray started it by hitting a 3-pointer with 28 seconds left in the frame, before Korbin Long then picked up a steal near the Sparkman three-point line, sprinted the other way and laid the ball in off the glass just as the red light went off to give the Jags a 15-7 lead.

That was just the beginning of a 22-1 run that carried into the second quarter, eventually giving Spain Park a 22-7 lead after Sam Wright, Turner and Gray all scored the first three baskets of the period.

“We’ve been down a lot in a lot of games early and we’ve jumped out early,” Laatsch said. “It seems like we are either up big or down big early, but these guys have been true to the character of just playing the next play, winning the next possession and really just trying to be who we are every phase. We try not to get too worked up watching the scoreboard and focus on the next possession.”

With Spain Park up by 18 points, Sparkman was able to end the first half on an 8-4 run, which trimmed the deficit slightly to 31-17 going into the break.

A big reason for the first-half success was Spain Park outrebounding Sparkman 23-12, which helped the Jags overcome 11 turnovers.

Turner, who had 10 points and six rebounds in the half, came out and got the first points of the second half with a layup to extend the lead to 33-17.

“I felt like there was a good chance for me,” Turner said. “I felt like I had a size advantage in the post. Just having the ability to tell my teammates that I have an advantage and to get me the ball, them having the trust in me is really important.”

Sparkman, however, responded with a 12-5 run shortly after, which trimmed the once 18-point lead for Spain Park down to nine points.

But with momentum shifting and the Senators creating a hectic environment, freshman Jared Smith stepped up big.

He made a layup and then threw down a dunk to help the Jags end the quarter on a 4-0 run and gain some momentum back.

“The pressure was something we faced a lot, specifically the last month or two months,” Turner said. “Our area has a ton of pressure, and that really prepared us for this because we needed a lot of poise to handle the pressure. We turned it over a lot, but we did have a lot of poise.”

Sparkman answered back with a 4-0 run of its own to start the final quarter and get back within nine points yet again.

But Turner once again stepped up big as a senior leader for the Jaguars.

He scored six straight for the Jags to put them up 48-35 before Hunter Herritt then scored four straight to make it 52-35.

The Jags then got a floater from Chase James, another layup from Turner and another layup from Herritt to take a nine-point advantage and turn it into their largest lead of the game at 59-40.

Sparkman couldn’t make that up in the final two minutes, as the Jags closed out the 13-point win.

Laatsch credited his two senior leaders for helping get the team to this point, while saying the entire team was willing to follow their leadership after eight graduated from last year’s Final Four team and only four returned, including two starters.

“We’ve got two of the best leaders that I’ve coached in Josh Harrington and Colin Turner,” Laatsch said. “Josh is an unbelievable warrior and just a fighter. These two guys have just led. Credit to our guys because leaders can’t lead if others aren’t willing to follow. These guys have been willing to follow their example. I’m so proud of them because of the buy in. They bought into us, they bought into their leadership so to see them rewarded for that is a blessing for me. It’s not easy for kids today to buy in and believe because there are a lot of individual ideas and a lot of outside ideas. These guys shut a door on that and believe in us and believe in each other. I want them to be successful because I know how hard it is for kids their age to buy in and believe so it makes me happy.”

Turner led Spain Park with 20 points and nine rebounds, finishing 9-12 from the field. Wright also finished in double figures with 10 points and totaled six rebounds.

Harrington only had two points in the win, but the senior had nine rebounds, six assists and two steals with only two turnovers as the starting point guard.

As a team, the Jags finished 25-42 from the floor and outrebounded Sparkman 39-22.

The Jags will now take on Huntsville in the Elite Eight for the second year in a row on Monday, Feb. 21 at 10:45 inside Pete Mathews Coliseum. Last year’s game saw Spain Park win 51-50 to advance to the Final Four.