Chelsea fights hard but falls short in Sweet 16 to Grissom

Published 4:41 pm Tuesday, February 13, 2024

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

JACKSONVILLE – With the Grissom Panthers leading by 10 points early in the fourth quarter, the Chelsea Hornets had to respond with their season on the line.

They did so by scoring six straight points to cut the deficit to just four with 3:43 remaining.

While the Hornets couldn’t draw closer than that, coach Nicholas Baumbaugh said their effort in the fourth quarter and to even get to this stage was emblematic of the school as a whole.

“We’ve got tough minded folks down there at Chelsea working their tail off day in and day out,” Baumbaugh said. “There’s no quit any of them. A lot of that goes to our coaches instilling that in our kids and our kids buying into what we do as a whole as an athletic program, not just the basketball or just the football or just the baseball or the girls basketball, all those girls teams and any other team I’m leaving out.

“I think that our mindset at Chelsea is, ‘we’ll give this everything we got until it hits zero,’ and I thought our kids did that tonight.”

In the end, Chelsea fell to Grissom 45-38 in the Northeast Regional Semifinals on Tuesday, Feb. 13 at Jacksonville State’s Pete Mathews Coliseum, which closed out the Hornets’ season after they reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2016.

“We put ourselves in the position to win, we just fell short,” Baumbaugh said.

Grissom struck with the first basket and led for much of the quarter, but Chelsea had an answer for nearly every Panthers basket, tying up the game three separate times and taking the lead once.

The Hornets knotted up the score at 10 apiece with 35 seconds left by hitting a pair of free throws. However, Grissom answered with a 3-pointer at the buzzer to take a 13-10 lead at the end of the first quarter.

After a frantic first quarter fueled by the large and loud crowds from both schools, defense prevailed in a quiet start to the second quarter.

Chelsea scored first three minutes into the quarter to cut the lead to one, but shortly afterwards, Grissom cracked the code of the Hornets defense and started to find the basket.

The Panthers hit a pair of 3-pointers in the second and drew fouls to get to the free throw line and extend the lead.

By the end of the quarter, Grissom held a 26-16 lead to put the pressure on Chelsea to answer after the halftime break.

The Hornets opened the third quarter well with a pair of free throws from Aiden Owens and a put-back from Avery Futch. That five-point swing cut the deficit to six and forced a Panthers timeout.

From there, it was another tightly-fought stretch for much of the third quarter. Futch continued to dominate for the Chelsea offense by scoring throughout the quarter, including a 3-pointer with 2:05 left to cut the deficit to four.

In response, the Panthers scored four straight points to close the quarter and led 35-27 at the end of the third.

Grissom scored the lone basket of the first three minutes of the fourth quarter to go up by 10 as the defenses controlled the tempo.

However, Chelsea refused to go down quietly and made a run to try and secure the lead.

Will Lee kicked off the run with 4:45 left and Jaxon Shuttlesworth made a pair of clutch shots to make the score 37-33.

That electrified the traveling Hornets fans and forced a Panthers timeout with 3:43 remaining.

Chelsea had an opportunity to make it a one-possession game for the next minute of the game, but it couldn’t capitalize and Grissom extended its lead once again.

The Hornets drew within two possessions of tying the game twice in the final 1:05, but the Panthers withstood the pressure and pulled away from the free throw line to take the Sweet 16 showdown.

After the game, Baumbaugh said that Grissom caught his team off guard to start the game and the lack of a strong start ended up costing them. But at the end of the day, he believes that it was the lack of big baskets down the stretch that made the difference on the scoreboard.

“When you look at the stats, you don’t feel like we lost, but the only stat that matters is the one on the scoreboard, and we fell short right there,” Baumbaugh said. “You can go back and watch the film and learn. We had our opportunities, we just didn’t hit that big shot.”

Futch led the team in scoring with 12 points and five rebounds. Shuttlesworth also got into double figures with 10 points and five rebounds. Owens scored six points and Gavin Collett had five points.

Futch reflected on the run he and his teammates made to go from fourth place in the area to their first trip to Jacksonville State since 2016, saying they all left it out on the floor for each other.

“Definitely a dream come true to come to Jacksonville State,” Futch said. “Lost the first two years, this is my third year on varsity. I’m glad to be here. Definitely created a family with all my teammates and my coaches, and I gave it all I could on the floor.”

Shuttlesworth was proud of his senior teammates for helping to make history and cap off years of playing together.

“A lot of us have been playing with each other since fourth, fifth grade, some even earlier than that,” Shuttlesworth said. “When we were young, we always talked about our senior year and how we thought we would be really good and I think that we’re going to look back and remember winning the area and beating Spain Park and just making it to Jacksonville State. I think that means a lot to us.”