Cedar Bluff tops Spring Garden to advance to state tournament


Cedar Bluff players celebrate their 47-43 win over Spring Garden on Friday. (Photo by Marc Golden | Gadsden Times)


JACKSONVILLE — Katie McGinnis just stood there, hand over her mouth watching her Cedar Bluff teammates celebrate after the final second ticked off the clock.

“I never thought I would feel like this,” she later would say. “You can’t put it in words.”

McGinnis’ Tigers continued their stunning run through the postseason Friday by defeating Spring Garden 47-43 for the Class 1A Northeast Regional girls high school basketball tournament championship.

It was history for Cedar Bluff (17-15), who was making its first appearance at the regional tournament. The win also meant a trip to Birmingham for the Final 48 next week, where it stands just two wins away from a state championship.

It’s perhaps a far cry from where anyone thought the Tigers would be after finishing the regular season 13-14 with six losses in seven games heading into an Area 10 tournament semifinal matchup with No. 10 Collinsville.

But Cedar Bluff regrouped to upset Collinsville and secure a spot in the sub-regional round. After losing to Spring Garden in the area tournament title game, the Tigers beat Appalachian to reach regional, where they defeated Skyline to set up Friday’s matchup against Spring Garden.

It was the fourth time the teams have met this season, with Spring Garden winning each of the first three.

“It was an epic battle between two really good basketball teams,” Cedar Bluff coach Joe Carpenter said. “As you saw, it could have easily gone either way.”

The Tigers cruised through the first three quarters and took a 35-24 lead into the fourth. But that’s when Spring Garden (19-13) made its run, outscoring the Tigers 7-1 to open the final quarter to pull within 36-32.

Audrey Hargitt, the tournament’s MVP, then took command and scored six straight points.

Her second layup of the 6-1 run was crucial, Spring Garden coach Ricky Austin said, because it put the Panthers in too deep of a hole at 40-32 with 4:38 to play.

“That was the big play that opened it up again a little bit too much to make a run at it,” he said.

It didn’t stop Spring Garden from trying, though, as Madison Sides made a 3-pointer and Darian Gaines put in a layup to make it 42-38 with 2:15 remaining. After a free throw from Cedar Bluff’s Hannah Leach, Sides drilled another 3-pointer to pull within 43-41.

After the defense held, Spring Garden had a chance to take the lead, but Gaines came up short on a 3-pointer with 39 seconds left and Cedar Bluff took possession.

The Tigers were able to milk the clock to 17.9 seconds before Spring Garden fouled Leach. She banked in the first free throw before missing the second, but Hargitt grabbed the offensive rebound.

She tried to shoot from the block but was tied up by a Spring Garden defender for a jump ball, and the possession arrow pointed toward the Panthers.

But instead of attempting  a game-tying 3-pointer, the Panthers opted to go inside and got a layup from Haley Motes with five seconds left to trail by a point. Austin said Cedar Bluff’s defense had been tough the entire game, and while the play he set up was to take a three, he knew they might have to take a shot inside and foul quickly.

“We don’t have any playmaker that can (create) a three for themselves,” Austin said. “So if our teammates can’t create something for us, we’ve got to take the next thing, and we had to take that shot inside. We should have got that bucket quicker and got in our defense. It should have taken five seconds or less to get the ball down the court and get that layup, then a quick foul or timeout after that.”

McGinnis, who scored 10 points, was fouled and made both of her free throws to give the Tigers a three-point edge. She added 1 of 2 with less than a half-second remaining after Spring Garden turned it over on an inbounds pass to seal the victory.

“We came to play,” Carpenter said of the difference between the three losses earlier in the year to Spring Garden and Friday’s win. “You can’t say enough about their effort. We didn’t get as rattled tonight as we did the last time we played them. I think that made a huge difference, too.”

Hargitt ended the game with 15 points and eight rebounds. Delilah Price added eight points for the Tigers. Gaines led Spring Garden with 15 points, and Sides had 12 points. Motes went for a double-double, scoring 10 points and pulling down 11 rebounds.

Austin, who has three state titles to his credit, handled the defeat with class.

“As disappointed as I am for my team not advancing, I am really that excited for Cedar Bluff for advancing,” Austin said. “This time of year is about excitement and heartache, and as much as we’re hurting on that side, I enjoyed watching Cedar Bluff players celebrate at the end of the game. That was exciting for me to see because they’ve come from the same place we’ve come from. I hate it for my team, but it’s exciting to watch them move forward.”