On a mission: Pelham continues historic season with first Final Four berth

Published 9:10 pm Tuesday, February 22, 2022

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By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor 

MONTGOMERY – When Crosby Morrison got to Pelham four years ago, she inherited a seven-win team that was struggling to believe they could win. Four years later, they’ve made school history.

Five days after beating Gulf Shores to punch a ticket to the Elite Eight for the first time, the Panthers got a fourth game against rival Helena this season on Tuesday, Feb. 22 inside Montgomery’s Garrett Coliseum and added another mark in the historic timeline with a 44-38 victory to advance to the Final Four for the first time in school history.

“This is a very special group. It’s a group me and my staff came in with that were freshmen,” Morrison said after the historic moment. “The message four years ago was to just buy in and hold on. If you do, you’ll be rewarded. Now, they’re going to the Final Four. “I’m emotional because of what they’ve accomplished. They’re super competitive and we tried to channel that to get them to believe they could win. The first year was just to believe we could win. Last year, we made a run. This year, they expected to be here.”

And the expectation started before the season when the team got together and decided to hold each other accountable.

“The, they got together and said, ‘If you expect anything less than the Final Four or state championship game, then you need to leave,’” Morrison said.

Now, after the tight six-point win against their rivals, the Panthers have held true to their word.

It didn’t come easily, however, as the two teams, separated by less than six miles, were both in the midst of history after the Huskies had made their first Elite Eight appearance in school history as well since splitting from Pelham in 2014.

Not only that, it marked the fourth matchup between the two teams this season as area foes.

Pelham entered with wins of 60-21, 47-35 and 56-32, but Morrison knew this one would be a tougher test.

“That was tough. I sought guidance from coaches from all over with many years of experience,” Morrison said. “Nobody could give me a right answer. We just decided to do better at what we’re doing good and do better at what we were doing bad. We didn’t want to change too much because it worked all season, but they came in with a good game plan.”

The Huskies, hungry to avenge the three regular-season losses and continue a historic trek themselves, used that game plan to hang within striking distance the entire game.

After Helena took a 1-0 lead on an Olivia Johnigan free throw to start the game, Pelham responded with back-to-back baskets from Laci Gogan, who got a strong first half started.

She knocked down a three, and then laid a ball in off a steal from Myriah Tate to give the Panthers a 5-1 lead.

Helena, however, came ready for a fight and responded with a 6-0 run to steal the lead back at 7-5.

Gogan made sure that lead didn’t last long, as she gave her team an 8-7 lead at the end of the first quarter on a late 3-pointer.

Helena was able to hang within a point up to 10-9 early in the second quarter, but then, all of the Panthers started to heat up, including the defensive pressure of Tate, who helped spark several baskets off turnovers.

Pelham capped off an 18-4 run with four more from Gogan, a 3-pointer from Victoria West and a Jaslyn Heflin layup.

That put the Panthers in front by 12 before Johnigan tried to swing momentum back in the Huskies’ favor with four late points.

Each of her shots, however, was answered by a layup from Tate and a free throw from Gogan to give Pelham a 26-15 lead at the break.

The Panthers used their defensive pressure to make the difference in the half, turning 17 turnovers from Helena into 12 points.

“I actually wasn’t super proud of defensive effort today because we started out a little slow,” Morrison said. “But we put in some different trap scenarios in our defensive stuff today and started doing better with that in the second quarter and that’s when we went on a run. We get our offensive production from our defensive effort, so that was important.”

Out of the break, however, Helena did what it needed to with a 9-3 run to get back in the game.

The Huskies used two layups from Alana Scott, a jump shot from Kennedi Nobles, a free throw from Johnigan and a layup from Brooklyn Kelley to cut the deficit to five points at 24-29.

But each time Helena cut the deficit to five in the second half, which happened five times, Pelham had an answer.

It was West who answered with another deep jumper for Pelham late in the quarter to give the Panthers a seven-point advantage going to the final quarter.

The Huskies again battled to within five on two different occasions in the first three minutes of the fourth quarter, but a stretch of six consecutive free throws kept them from trimming it further.

Pelham got two free throws from Jaden Jones to extend it back to seven before three minutes of scoreless action between the two.

Savannah Scarbrough snapped that drought with a jumper to make it a nine-point Pelham lead with 3:15 to play.

Helena, however, continued to push, eventually getting back to within five points two more times, including at 37-32.

The Huskies had their best chance to make it a one possession game at that point, but a steal and layup for Heflin with 1:15 to play prevented that from happening.

After falling behind 41-33, Helena got one more big 3-pointer from Sophia Merchant with 24.6 to play, but that became the final time the Huskies got to within five, as Pelham finished off the 44-38 win with three free throws from there.

“That was exhausting, but it was really cool,” Morrison said. “All those Shelby County kids playing in the Elite Eight. I’m not sure that has been done before. It normally seems like McGill, Blount, LeFlore and others come out of this regional. All of these kids grew up playing each other in rec ball.”

Pelham was led by 18 points from Gogan, who finished 6-13 from the floor, 3-5 from beyond the arc and 3-4 from the free throw line. She also had three rebounds and three steals.

Heflin and West each added seven points, while West led the team with nine rebounds. Myriah Tate added six points, four rebounds and a team-high four steals.

Helena was led by Johnigan with 13 points and three rebounds, while Scott totaled 10 points and nine boards.

Pelham will now take on Oxford at the BJCC’s Legacy Arena on Wednesday, March 2 at 9 a.m. looking to continue a historic run with a Final Four win and a trip to the Class 6A State Championship game.

“Right now they are gassed, but they are excited,” Morrison said. “They were telling me that we’ve got this. I’m hopeful, but I’m also confident in having seven seniors that they’re going to come ready to practice. They’re still hungry and confident.”