Sweet victory: Chelsea downs No. 2 Sparkman for spot in Elite Eight

Published 2:25 pm Tuesday, February 13, 2024

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JACKSONVILLE – After falling behind for the first time in the game at 28-27 with 5:40 to play in the final quarter of the Sweet 16, the eighth-ranked Chelsea girls basketball team faced a gut check against No. 2 Sparkman on Tuesday, Feb. 13.

Coming off a heartbreak area tournament championship loss to Hewitt-Trussville in a game the Hornets led by eight points in the fourth quarter, the Hornets were determined to not let history repeat itself.

That’s when Caroline Brown hit the biggest basket of the season with 5:04 remaining. The sophomore powered into the paint, fought through contact and laid the ball into the basket off the glass with the foul.

She calmly stepped to the line and sank the free throw to complete the and-1 opportunity and give the Hornets a 30-28 lead with five minutes left.

“We were losing momentum a little bit,” Brown said. “We needed a boost of confidence. I was nervous because I thought they called a charge, but it wasn’t. I was freaking out, everyone started freaking out. It definitely brought a lot of momentum for sure.”

From that point forward, leading scorer Haley Trotter took over.

The junior scored the game’s next six points for the Hornets and then got a block on the defensive end that led to a fast break for Olivia Pryor, who pushed the ball ahead to Brown for another layup and a 38-28 lead with 2:50 to play.

From there, Chelsea relied on what has been one of the state’s best defenses all season to close out a 13-0 run down the stretch and a 40-28 victory for a spot in the Elite Eight against Hewitt-Trussville.

“We played for an area championship the other night against Hewitt and let one get away late,” Harlow said. “We had an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter and let it get away. That is something we definitely talked about in the locker room at halftime today—that we were in this situation not that long ago and how will we respond differently. Are we going to do all of the little things that it takes to win and I feel like the kids really responded to that.”

Early in the top-10 battle, it was Chelsea’s defense that led the way, giving up three points in the opening quarter as the Hornets jumped out to an 11-3 lead at the end of the opening quarter.

The defense led to offense early, while the Hornets scored on several backdoor cuts to the basket.

Sparkman started to battle back in the second quarter, trimming the deficit down to five points at 14-9, but the Hornets responded with two free throws from Julian Bass and a deep floater from Sadie Schwallie for an 18-11 advantage going into the halftime break.

“We’re a team that is based off of defense and that was what we talked about in the locker room was that the team that defended better would be the team that wins,” Harlow said of the first half defensive effort. “We came to play Chelsea basketball and not Sparkman basketball. If we wanted to get in a track meet with them and get up and down and take a lot of outside shots, it wasn’t going to work. We needed to run our stuff, be patient and take high percentage shots so we could like where we would be late in the game so the crowd could become a factor.”

That strong defensive effort became key in the second half as the Senators tried to fight back into the game.

Chelsea started the second half with a fadeaway jumper from Trotter, who had seven points and 10 rebounds in the first half alone, but Sparkman followed with a 12-5 run to close out the quarter and pull within two points at 25-23 heading to the fourth.

That momentum swing following their largest deficit of the game carried into the final period as the Senators picked up a quick steal and layup to tie the game before hitting a 3-pointer on the team’s next possession for a 28-27 lead and all of the momentum.

That, however, is when Chelsea looked back at the Hewitt-Trussville game and decided they weren’t going to let another one slip away.

Brown’s and-1 and Trotters big stretch led to a dominant 13-0 finish to keep the team’s season alive.

“We have a lot of unselfishness on this team,” Harlow said. “There is one stat that this team cares about and that’s the win column. In that scenario, Caroline got us going with the and-1 and then Haley stepped up. Big-time players stepped up in big-time games. I think Haley Trotter is one of the best players in the state. I know she is one of the best kept secrets in the state. To watch her go out and perform on this stage, I see it a lot, but I’m glad other people got to see how good of a player she is and her stepping up in that scenario. Played great defensively as well as offensively. Not surprised. I’m just a lucky guy that gets to coach these kids.”

Trotter finished with a double-double performance featuring 19 points and 18 rebounds, while Brown added 12 points, four rebounds and a team-high two steals. Trotter also totaled a game-high six blocks. Pryor finished with seven rebounds with a key effort as well, while Madeline Epperson added four more.

Chelsea will now face Hewitt-Trussville on Tuesday, Feb. 20 at 12:30 p.m. at Jacksonville State University for the fourth time this year with the Huskies winning the previous three matchups. A spot in the Class 7A Final Four will be on the line.

“Hewitt is a great team with one of the best players in the state with a fantastic coach,” Harlow said. “That being said, we just have to come in and guard at a high level and play our very best and we’ll see how that game goes. We gained a little confidence in the area championship and now have Caroline back. It will be a battle.”