Pelham’s young players step up in Sweet 16 win over Chilton County

Published 6:48 pm Thursday, February 15, 2024

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

BIRMINGHAM – The Pelham Panthers entered their Sweet 16 showdown with the Chilton County Tigers riding a wave of momentum from their dominant sub-regionals win against Northridge, but that win also brought more adversity for the team to overcome.

After suffering an injury in sub-regionals, Karma Wynn, one of the Pelham’s top scorers and senior leaders, had to watch from the bench.

However, to Pelham coach Crosby Morrison, it was just one more challenge to overcome in a season that has already seen lots of it.

“I think it’s just experience and leadership,” Morrison said. “We’ve been in these situations before where we go down late in the game, and we just know if we stick to what we do and we execute, then we can beat anybody. Experience-wise, I think that we were ready for that, and leadership-wise, Karma may not have played today, but she led on the bench just like she always does, and she stepped up in big-time ways, and so did Alayna [Noble]. I’m super proud of our leadership.”

The Panthers stepped up in Wynn’s absence and battled for a 41-35 victory over the Tigers on Thursday, Feb. 15 at Bill Harris Arena to return to the Elite Eight.

After a scoreless start to the game, Tee King struck first to take the lead with 6:13 left in the first. Chilton County answered on its next possession, but that would be its only basket of the quarter.

Pelham’s defense locked in to steal possessions and converted them into baskets in transition. Alayna Noble and Gerren Ingram each scored fast break layups to put the Panthers up 6-2, and their defense kept the Tigers scoreless in the final four-and-a-half minutes of the quarter to keep their four-point lead.

Pelham extended the lead to eight with 5:58 left in the half as they continued to dictate the tempo with King and Noble leading the way for the offense.

Chilton County secured fouls on the Panthers and slowly but surely clawed back into the game off multiple trips to the free throw line. The Tigers then scored with seven seconds left to cut the deficit back to four going into halftime.

While Pelham led 16-12 at the half, Chilton County scored the first basket of the half, but the Panthers scored the next two field goals to retake a two-possession lead.

Then, a Tigers 3-pointer kicked off a back-and-forth stretch over the next three possessions. Chilton County cut the lead to one with just under five minutes left in the third, but Shea Gallagher and King extended it to six.

That lead wouldn’t last long as the Tigers went on a 6-1 run and slashed that lead to just one going into the fourth.

It only got more tense for Pelham from there as Chilton County hit a three to take the lead just 14 seconds into the final quarter.

In fact, the Panthers were held scoreless from the field for six minutes until Ingram tied the game up at 32 with 6:30 to go.

Her basket led to a tied ballgame for two minutes until she scored in transition to retake the lead.

The Panthers led for good after that as they held the Tigers to just three points the rest of the way. King and Ingram each scored a basket to put Pelham up five and trigger a timeout with 2:05 remaining, and they finished well on the free throw line to close out the win.

After the game, Morrison was proud of her team for stepping up into unfamiliar situations, and she credited that to how Wynn has made her teammates better in practice.

“Our motto this year was, ‘Stronger Together,’ that we play through adversity, we embrace adversity to get better and to get better with each other,” Morrison said. “And so, we preach all the time, ‘Next man up. If somebody goes down, somebody’s got to be prepared,’ and we have pretty tough practices and that’s where it comes in handy and that’s where we get better because the kids that have to guard Karma are now ready to play in a big-time game like this.

“I’m super excited about the ones that stepped up and we had a lot step up in some roles that they’re not used to.”

King was one of those players who stepped up with a team-high 19 points. Ingram scored 10 points as the freshman got into double figures, Noble had six points and Gallagher scored five points.

Morrison was glad that her young players got the experience on the big stage as every player on the floor except Noble will return next season.

After the way they settled into the second half, she is confident that they can continue their momentum into their showdown with Hillcrest on Tuesday, Feb. 20 at 9 a.m. at Bill Harris Arena.

“I’m excited that our young ones got some experience today, which they were scared to death the first quarter,” Morrison said. “It’s the first time they’ve been in a big arena in a big environment like this, and I thought they settled in finally in the third and fourth quarter and came out with some confidence, came out with some grit and I think we can carry that into the Elite Eight.

“I work with the best staff in the state of Alabama and we will have a game plan ready for Hillcrest. I’m excited about our opportunity to play again in the Elite Eight.”