Another shot: Spain Park advances to 2nd straight Final Four looking for redemption

Published 1:10 pm Monday, February 21, 2022

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor 

JACKSONVILLE – Walking off the court heartbroken following a loss to Enterprise in the Final Four a year ago, Spain Park’s Colin Turner and Josh Harrington were determined to not let the feeling happen again.

The only two returning starters on this year’s team, the two seniors set a goal of getting back and redeeming that loss; but first, they had to take down Huntsville for the second consecutive year in the Elite Eight on Monday, Feb. 21 inside Jacksonville State’s Pete Mathews Coliseum.

Taking on a team they beat by one point a season ago, holding their breath on a buzzer-beater attempt that fell short to give the Jags a 51-50 victory, the two seniors stepped up in a big way with a combined 40 points in a 60-51 win to punch a ticket to the Final Four for the second year in a row.

“The good thing is, these guys with us this year all felt what we felt last year after the loss,” Harrington said after the game. “They were ready to come out and play together as a team so we didn’t feel that way. There was always a want to win that we’ve kept. I love the way these guys compete and play together. It’s awesome playing with each of them.”

The Jaguars again found themselves in a back-and-forth thrilling battle with Huntsville that went down to the final minutes.

The Panthers actually took their largest lead of the game at 38-33 late in the third quarter before Spain Park head coach Chris Laatsch called a timeout.

That decision made a world of difference with Huntsville stealing all of the momentum.

Spain Park ended the third quarter with a steal that led to an emphatic dunk from Turner to bring the Jags to within three going to the final quarter.

“It’s a game of runs, and there were several big runs,” Laatsch said. “We got down and called a timeout there. Pivotal point. That’s when we told them they had to decide if we would fight back or just muddle through the rest of the way. They put their foot in the ground, responded and got it done.”

The Jags then got back-to-back difficult shots from Harrington to start the final quarter for a 39-38 lead.

Huntsville’s Caleb Harrison responded with two of his 15 points to give the Panthers the lead right back before a Chase James 3-pointer gave the Jags a 42-40 advantage.

After Huntsville evened it again at 42-42, the Jaguars responded with a huge and-1 from Hunter Herritt with 4:40 left that ultimately gave them the lead for good.

The Panthers cut it to 47-44, but with 3:26 left in the game, the Jags started earning trips to the free throw line, and that’s where they cemented the nine-point win.

They went 13-14 over the final 3:26 in clutch fashion with the Panthers within two or three for much of that span. Eventually, that wore down Huntsville, as the Jags closed out the 60-51 win.

“Closing out a game like that is unbelievable. There is a lot of pressure on those free throws,” Laatsch said. “We tell our guys it’s the only constant in basketball. It’s the only time you are guaranteed an uncontested shot. Sounds so easy, but the mind gets into it because of atmosphere. They showed a lot of resiliency to step up and knock them down.”

With the win, the Jags earned a second consecutive trip to the Final Four despite just the two starters back from last year’s team.

“Super, super proud of our guys,” Laatsch said. “Huntsville has an unbelievable team. It was a really tough matchup to prepare for because of how well coached they are, how well they play together and how well they compete.”

The game started out as a defensive battle in the opening quarter with both teams struggling to score for the first 3:52 of action.

Turner finally took the seal off the basket for the Jaguars with 4:08 left in the opening quarter with a layup, which was followed shortly after with a steal that led to a fast break and a Harrington layup.

Huntsville, however, responded with its first basket with 3:03 left, which led to a furious finish to the quarter.

The Panthers followed with their first of three 3-pointers in the half, which became key in keeping the game tight and gave them their first lead of the game. That was followed by another basket for a 7-0 run in less than a minute after close to five scoreless minutes to start the game.

Zach Gray came right back with a 3-pointer of his own to even the game.

From there, it was back-and-forth until Turner powered through an and-1 with 37.4 seconds to play in the quarter, giving the Jags the lead back at 12-9.

Huntsville did knock down two free throws, however, to cut it to one going to the second.

In the second quarter, the two teams traded runs, with Spain Park utilizing inside play and Huntsville capitalizing on 3-pointers.

The Panthers hit back-to-back 3-pointers at one point, eventually taking a 19-15, but Spain Park answered with a big stretch.

Turner and Herritt both had offensive rebounds and put backs on back-to-back possessions that even the game.

That seemed to swing the momentum in Spain Park’s favor, as the Jags got two free throws from Korbin Long and another layup from Turner as part of an 8-1 run to end the half that gave them a 23-20 lead.

Spain Park capitalized on 16 points in the paint to take the lead at the break, while the Panthers took advantage of their nine points from beyond the arc to hang within three.

Turner came right back following 11 points and six rebound in the first half and made the first basket of the second half inside to extend Spain Park’s lead to 25-20.

From there, however, the Panthers did a good job of shutting the post down.

With that, they clawed back to tie the game twice before taking a 30-28 lead.

Then, after the Jags gathered the lead again, Harrison responded with back-to-back difficult shots to put Huntsville on top by three before a jumper made it a 6-0 run and a five-point advantage.

That’s when the timeout happened and Spain Park flipped the momentum back in their favor.

From there, they were able to find open shots, make difficult shots and get back inside.

“I was just trying to bang inside the whole time,” Turner said. “That’s what I’ve been trying to do at practice and what the coaches have been hammering. In the second half, they were doing a good job in there, but Josh started to create a lot, which opened me up.”

After falling behind 40-39 early in the final quarter, the Jags outscored the Panthers 21-11 the rest of the way to close out the win.

Turner led Spain Park with 25 points and eight rebounds, finishing 9-12 from the field and 7-7 from the free throw line. Harrington added 15 points, two rebounds and two assists. He shot 4-5 from the line and 5-8 from the field.

The Jags also got seven from Herritt along with six rebounds, while Gray and James each added five points.
As a team, the Jags shot 59.4 percent from the field and 90.5 percent from the free throw line.

They’ll now take on either Enterprise or Smiths Station in the Final Four at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, March 3 inside the BJCC.