Chelsea reaches regionals for first time since 2016 with comeback win at Spain Park

Published 11:54 pm Tuesday, February 6, 2024

By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

HOOVER – As the Spain Park Jaguars led 31-19 with 4:40 left in the third quarter, the Chelsea Hornets were left searching for answers going into an extended delay for an injured official.

Once the Hornets came out of the locker room, though, they surged back to take the lead going into the fourth quarter and emerged from a back-and-forth stretch to stay ahead in the final minutes.

When the final buzzer sounded, it was the Hornets who were 1-5 in area play celebrating their 46-45 win over the previously 6-0 Jaguars on Tuesday, Feb. 6 at Spain Park High School in the semifinals of the Class 7A, Area 6 tournament.

The victory seals Chelsea’s first trip to the Sweet 16 since 2016 and the first ever in Class 7A, and it will have the chance to earn its first area title since that season against Oak Mountain on Thursday, Feb. 8 at 6 p.m. at Spain Park.

For that comeback to happen, however, Spain Park first had to take a commanding double-digit lead in the first half.

The Jags came flying out from the opening tip with a 6-0 run in the first 2:02 of the game. While the Hornets got on the scoreboard from the free throw line, a Korbin Long and-1 and TJ Lamar basket took the lead to 12-3 with 2:36 left in the quarter, forcing a Chelsea timeout.

However, the Hornets quickly clawed their way back after a three-pointer and Christen Whetstone transition dunk cut the deficit to four with 1:05 left in the first.

Spain Park responded from the free throw line to take a 15-10 lead into the second quarter, but Chelsea wasn’t done despite making it a two-possession game.

It took just over two minutes into the second for the Hornets to draw within two points of tying the game, putting the pressure on the Jags as Chelsea lingered within a shot of grabbing the lead.

Spain Park handled the rally well and ensured that the Hornets wouldn’t get closer than that before halftime.

Long and Chapman Blevins powered the offense in the back half of the quarter as the Jags went on a 9-1 run to close out the half.

That put Spain Park up double-digits going into halftime thanks to a 27-17 lead.

The first minute-and-a-half of the third quarter went by without a point scored from either side, but after that, Gavin Collett hit a pair of free throws to make it a single-digit game again.

Field goals from TJ Lamar and Korbin Long would take the Jags lead back to 12 with 4:40 left.

However, during that transition layup by Long, an official was injured by another player away from the ball, and the referees sent both teams to their locker rooms while he was treated and replaced.

That was the moment everything changed.

The Hornets went on a 16-3 run in the final 4:40 of the third quarter behind three baskets from Collett and a pair of three-pointers from Avery Futch.

Jaxon Shuttlesworth capped off the run with a layup with 11 seconds left in the third, and that gave Chelsea the 35-34 lead going into the fourth and final period.

Spain Park retook the lead with a Lamar transition dunk just 16 seconds into the fourth and extended their lead to three shortly after.

The Jags held on to that lead for the next two minutes, but Shuttlesworth converted a three-point play to tie the game back up.

The three minutes after that saw multiple lead changes as the teams battled to gain the upper hand. After quickly tying the score back up at 42 following a Nick Richardson three, Chelsea reclaimed the lead with an Aiden Owens dunk with 2:15 left.

From there, the Hornets defense frustrated Spain Park and forced a timeout from the Jags’ Chris Laatsch with 50 seconds left to regroup.

Chelsea called its own timeout with 24 seconds left while sitting on the free throw line. While the Hornets couldn’t convert on the line, Owens grabbed a steal on a pass up the court with 15.4 seconds left and was immediately fouled.

He made the back half of his free throws to increase the lead to 45-42, and after the Jags missed a three-pointer to try and tie the game, Whetstone grabbed the rebound and made a free throw of his own with 6.9 seconds left to make it a two-possession game.

While Spain Park sunk a three-pointer at the buzzer, it wouldn’t be enough as Chelsea’s players erupted with joy, and after the handshake line, the traveling students joined them on the court to celebrate their first Sweet 16 appearance in eight years.

Shuttlesworth led the way for Chelsea with 13 points while Futch scored nine points and Collett had eight points.

For Spain Park, Lamar scored 13 points, Long had 12 points and Blevins earned 10 points in the Jags’ last game of the season.

But as for the Hornets, they have a reason to celebrate as their season will go on to Thursday’s area championship and beyond into regionals.