Spain Park falls short to Central-Phenix City in final seconds of Final Four

Published 5:08 pm Thursday, March 2, 2023

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By LAUREN SEXTON | Sports Reporter

BIRMINGHAM – In their third consecutive appearance in the Final Four, the Spain Park Jaguars walked off the court at Legacy Arena on Thursday, March 2 after a gut-wrenching 61-58 loss to Central-Phenix City heartbroken.

For Spain Park head coach Chris Laatsch, it wasn’t the result that made it painful, it was the hurt he had for his players that made it difficult. 

“What makes this hard is just because I love these boys so much,” Laatsch said about his senior players. “These guys have given me everything they’ve got for four straight years. I just hurt for them because I wanted them to reach their goal.”

Spain Park led by as many as nine points early in the third quarter, but Central-Phenix City clawed back after catching fire from three. 

Ultimately, they swapped places with the Jags, using the three-ball to eventually open up a late six-point lead. Spain Park fought back to take the lead, but at 50-49 with just less than two minutes to play, but another Central three put the Red Devils back in front with 1:55 to play. 

The Jags were able to tie the game from there at 52-52, but the Red Devils went back up by as many as five. 

Spain Park did claw back one last time and had an open look in the final five seconds for a game-tying three, but it hit off the back of the iron, as the season came to a heartbreaking end. 

“I told them that this game doesn’t define you,” Laatsch said. “There’s one team that’s going to walk off this court Saturday extremely happy and everybody else lost their last game. We talk a lot about that, we’ll just keep preaching that same message.”

The opening quarter started with a battle of the offenses as both teams kept the game close. Central-Phenix City gained a 4-0 lead in the first minute after a layup and two points from the free throw line. Shortly after, Sam Wright and Zach Gray knocked down back-to-back baskets to tie the score.

While both teams had a strong offensive presence inside the paint, the Jaguars’ defense began to limit Central-Phenix, while Wright had success inside for the Jags, helping them take a 14-11 lead.

Central responded with a 3-pointer to even the score going to the second quarter, but the game became more defensive early in the second quarter. Wright knocked down a field goal for a 16-15 lead, as the game became increasingly intense.

TJ Lamar was a huge contribution defensively as he stopped much of Central-Phenix City underneath the hoop. The Red Devils earned several trips to the free-throw line, but they ultimately came away empty-handed on most of those trips.

In a strong last-minute effort to create some separation in the fleeting seconds, back-to-back baskets from Wright and Jared Smith, who slammed home an emphatic dunk, as well as a free throw gained the Jaguars a 26-21 lead going into the second half.

Wright was an offensive force to be reckoned with, posting 10 points and three rebounds in the opening half. On the defensive end, Hunter Herritt was a dominant presence inside the paint. Herritt totaled five defensive rebounds and one offensive rebound.

Smith and Gray tacked on six more points each to the Jaguars’ score. Chase James posted three points outside the arc, while Korbin Long added one. 

Returning to the second half, Spain Park was quick out of the gate with Wright picking up where he left off by scoring four straight points to make it 30-21. However, a shift in the Central-Phenix City offense became much more aggressive and began to close the gap.

The Red Devils hit six 3-pointers over the final four minutes of the third quarter, including a buzzer-beater off the glass that gave them a 45-41 lead going to the final quarter.

Spain Park switched gears with just eight minutes left in the game. The Jaguars began to make several offensive adjustments and stuck to the paint to close the third-quarter gap Central-Phenix City created.

After Spain Park fought back to take the lead at 50-49, the ensuing three gave the Red Devils the lead back by two with 1:55 to play, and the Jags never led again. 

They tied it at 52-52 with 1:49 left and had a chance to tie it again, but a missed free throw left them in a one-point deficit, and Central capitalized with a 4-0 run that put them up 58-53 with 29.2 seconds to play.

Spain Park fought back to within a point with 12.9 to play, and then had a chance at the buzzer to even the score, but it wasn’t meant to be in the three-point loss.  

Wright carried the Jaguars, knocking down a total of 25 points along with a total of three offensive rebounds and three defensive rebounds. A strong finish to a thrilling game and high school career.

“It’s a blessing getting this far,” Wright said. “Even though it didn’t end the way we wanted it to, hopefully the next guys will get the program there.”

Gray followed up Wright with 15 points posted in the Jaguars’ final game of his senior year. Gray tacked on one offensive rebound and three defensive rebounds.

“We’ve all been playing together since middle school,” Gray said about playing with his fellow seniors. “We thought that this year would be different. Started working really hard, all the way up from last year. Even though it didn’t go the way we wanted it to go, I wouldn’t play with anybody else.

Herritt led the defense with one offensive rebound and seven defensive rebounds, while tacking on two points as well.

“Getting this far sucks to lose,” Herritt said. “But making it through the process is fun with these guys. If you look at the kids below us, this is going to prepare them for next year. They feel the environment and how they need to play

Despite the season coming to an unfortunate end, Laatsch preached that it wasn’t about the destination, but how the Jaguars got to the Final Four from working hard all season.

“It’s the journey we talked about all the time,” Laatsch said. ” The seasons, not a destination. One team’s going to walk out of there happy and it’s about the journey. These guys stay hungry and passionate no matter what it is each and every day. “