Third time’s the charm: Spain Park advances to third consecutive Final Four

Published 1:53 pm Tuesday, February 21, 2023

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor

JACKSONVILLE – Having watched a 10-point lead with 1:20 left trimmed to one point with three seconds to play, Spain Park senior Zach Gray stepped to the free throw line looking to give his team a little bit of cushion against Huntsville inside Pete Matthews Coliseum on Tuesday, Feb. 21.

Gray calmly stepped up for his team and sunk both in clutch fashion to make it 38-35. Three seconds later, he spiked the ball down in celebration after the Panthers threw the ball away on their final opportunity

It capped off a thrilling finish, as Gray went immediately to celebrate the hard-fought victory with his teammates, as the Jags made school history with their third straight appearance in the Final Four following the three-point win.

“I’m so proud of our guys,” head coach Chris Laatsch said after the win. “These guys have kind of changed who they are and how we get things done. When we started the year, we were scoring a lot of points, kind of free in the open floor, a lot of three balls and made buckets, but over the last couple of weeks, these guys have just become tough and resilient and learned how to just win games on the last possession. It’s not always pretty and it’s not ever easy, but these guys just keep grinding and finding a way to win.”

The win, however, didn’t come without the team facing pressure-packed situations down the stretch—a theme during the postseason.

Up 33-23 with 1:20 remaining, Huntsville fought for its season, which led to a final run that put pressure on the Jaguars.

Chase James was called for an intentional foul while fighting for an inbounds pass at one point, which turned into a four-point swing with Huntsville making two free throws and a basket on the extra possession with 1:06 left.

The lead now trimmed to six points, the Jaguars were inbounding the ball in front of the Huntsville student section, and it led to some trouble down the stretch.

The Panthers capitalized on Spain Park turnovers with four more points in a row to trim the deficit all the way down to 33-31 with 41.7 seconds left.

Hunter Herritt, however, stepped up in a big way late. Following a 1-2 trip to the free throw line from Korbin Long, Herritt fought for the offensive rebound and tipped it back to Long, who this time, stepped to the line and sank both to make it 36-31.

Huntsville did bounce back with four straight from there, however, to climb right back in the game with 6.9 seconds to play, putting the pressure squarely back on Spain Park to inbound the ball.

This time around, the Jags got the ball to Gray, who went to the line for the final two points.

“We had our hotel team meeting last night. We had stats for Huntsville’s 24 games and our 30 games. It was crazy, all of these stats were within one point of each other. I told our guys, you have two really good teams,” Laatsch said. “Our stats are really good, but so are theirs. So, what’s going to separate is the toughness, grit and passion. That’s what you saw. Our kids finished it that way. They could have been rattled, but I thought they showed great resilience and it starts with our senior leaders and trickles down. I couldn’t be more proud of that, because toughness is really hard to get kids to play with and live by. We’re such emotional people. You can’t operate under your feelings in those moments, you have to operate on what you know and who you are and what you’ve been and who you can be and what you’ve been. They went back to what we know and held onto that to finish.”

Laatsch credited the team for playing for more than themselves, saying a six-minute video highlighting the students and season that they watched on the bus ride to the game really inspired them.

“I think for me, you might have seen it, it just came out,” Laatsch said. “One of the things we talked about in the locker room before the game was just to represent. We had a guy who has invested a lot in our program, and he allowed students to make a little video of encouragement for our guys, and we played it on the bus coming over. It’s six minutes long of these guys’ peers, those students you saw in the stands giving words of encouragement to our guys. We talked about representing them. People have invested in them. That’s what I felt at the end because that’s who I wanted them to play for today. I’m so excited that they were able to bring that back to them.”

The Jags showed their will to win early in the matchup as well.

Spain Park opened the game on fire, jumping out to a 10-2 lead against a physical Huntsville defense that was relentless throughout.

The Jags started with a 5-0 run behind a Herritt 3-pointer and a Long layup on a second chance. Huntsville answered with a layup, but the Jags responded with Gray knocking down a 3-pointer and a fade away jumper near the free throw line that made it 10-2.

Huntsville, however, responded with its first 3-pointer of the game, while a layup and free throw followed to make it a 10-8 through one quarter.

A defensive battle then ensued between the two in the second quarter as they carried over their physical approach.

It didn’t diminish the action, with both teams going hard after the ball, but it did lower the score significantly.

The Panthers trimmed the deficit to one point on a free throw to start the second quarter, but that became their only point of the period as they went on to finish 2-10 from the free throw line and 3-17 from the field in the half.

The Jaguars, however, couldn’t capitalize. They ended up posting just four points in the quarter to take a 14-9 lead at the break after the two combined to shoot 8-36 in the first half.

“Our message at halftime was to finish a few more of our opportunities and limit their runs,” Laatsch said. “Our kids did that. We told them it was going to be a heavyweight battle and it was. We told them it would come down to the last possession and it did.”

It was the defense in particular that played a big role against a Huntsville team that can catch fire. The Jags, however, limited the Panthers to 25.5 percent shooting from the floor in the game and 1-19 from beyond the arc.

“When they get in rhythm, they’re scary,” Laatsch said. “We knew we had to keep them off balance, so we played about seven different defenses tonight. We continually tried to adjust and give them different looks to not let their really good scorers get in a rhythm and get going. Our kids executed it tremendously.”

It looked like Huntsville may get in a rhythm early in the third quarter with two consecutive offensive rebounds and put backs to make it 16-13, but a Sam Wright spin in the post lead to a basket followed by a Gray 3-pointer and two James free throws.

All of a sudden, Spain Park was back up by eight.

The Panthers did claw back in the final minutes of the quarter, trimming the deficit down to three at 23-20 going to the final quarter to gain momentum back.

But Gray started the final quarter with a strong take to the basket that set the tone. That was part of an 8-4 run to start the quarter and give the Jags the exact cushion they needed in the thrilling victory.

Gray finished with 14 points and three rebounds in the win, while Wright added eight points and five boards. Jared Smith also had a big moment in the final quarter with a poster dunk that helped his team down the stretch. He finished with four points and eight rebounds. Long added seven points.

The Jags will now gear up for the Final Four, where they’ll hope to get even better after losing the last two seasons.

“I’m not going to lie, I’m already thinking about the next game. I’m so ready,” Gray said. “We’re going to practice as hard as we have been. Nothing is going to change except we will get better. I can’t wait to go to Birmingham to soak it all in.”

Wright added that he is excited to be going back, and he knows the team is a step closer to their goal of a championship.

“We have to get back to work,” he said. “We have to clean up some stuff, we were sloppy there toward the end and that’s not going to cut it.”

Spain Park will play either Central-Phenix City or Fairhope next Thursday, March 2 at 1:30 p.m. for a spot in the Class 7A State Championship game.