Spring Garden did what it always does, too, win in the opening round of the Northeast Regional girls basketball tournament. Spring Garden had too much defense, too many scoring options and too much regional tournament experience for the Thunder to overcome.
The Panthers’ tenth consecutive trip to the Northeast Regional basketball tournament began the same way the previous nine started, with a win. This one came at Jacksonville Christian’s expense, 63-33. Spring Garden (24-7) advances to meet Ragland (26-4) in the Class 1A girls regional title game Friday at 12:30 p.m. The Panthers have defeated the Purple Devils three times in regional semifinal games, most recently in 2009, but the two have never played in the title game.
“All year,” said Ragland coach Rush Rutledge when asked how long the Purple Devils had been waiting for a meeting against the Panthers with a trip to Birmingham and the AHSAA Final 48 on the line. “We knew it would come to this. We’re going to have to play a lot better than we played (Tuesday) to beat them.”
Miller finished her high school career by scoring 20 of her team’s 33 points but Jacksonville Christian trailed 13-0 before Miller got the Thunder on the scoreboard with a 3-point basket off the dribble with 14 seconds left in the first quarter. Spring Garden’s Jordan Sides penetrated into the point for two points just before the first quarter ended and the Panthers led 15-3. Spring Garden denied Miller and her teammates open looks at the basket most of the night and maintained double figure leads the remainder of the game.
“That’s all we talked about at practice this week,” Spring Garden coach Ricky Austin said of his team’s defensive effort, particularly limiting Miller’s productivity. “It was a great team effort defensively. We held their team to 33 and she’s got capabilities of getting 33 herself on any give night.”
While sophomore Heather Smart was primarily responsible for Miller, she got a lot of help.
“Every screen, we were switching off,” Austin noted. “We got a good team effort guarding their best player.”
“We can’t play a physical type ball game,” Jacksonville Christian coach Tommy Miller said. “If the whistle blows, we’re going to be in the ball game.”
Only seven fouls were called in the first half, two against Spring Garden and five against JCA, and the Panthers led 27-12 at intermission.
For Spring Garden, Austin couldn’t have asked for a better start. The Panthers controlled the opening tip and Smart stroked home a 3-pointer from the right wing.
“I thought Heather Smart’s shot to start the game gave our whole team a lot of confidence,” Austin said.
“She hit it and it got us all fired up and our defense was awesome the whole game,” said senior Tara Mullinax, who had 25 points and 13 rebounds, tops for the night in each category.
The Panthers hit the first two treys they attempted then missed the next six. Their shot selection after going cold was Austin’s only criticism. He said that all his players have a green light to shoot the 3-pointer but when those shots aren’t falling he prefers working the ball inside to Mullinax. Mullinax finished 11-for-18 from inside the arc against the Thunder.
“I wish she had gotten it more down there early,” Austin said of Mullinax’s work in the paint. “I wanted her to get some more touches.”
Sides, the point guard, had 12 points and eight rebounds for Spring Garden. In all, seven players scored for the Panthers. Sophomore Abby Jaskowski added nine points for JCA.
“I thought she had one of her best games,” Jaskowski’s coach said of her response to the pressure of playing in a big game.
The Panthers were 7-for-20 from behind the line and had 32 points in the paint, a lethal combination. Spring Garden also had 16 offensive rebounds and 22 second chance points. Jacksonville Christian had 11 offensive boards but no second chance points.