Just a few hours after claiming a 68-58 overtime victory against the Cherokee County Warriors in the tournament semifinals, top-seeded Cedar Bluff took on a rested Spring Garden Panther team for the county title Saturday evening at the Gadsden State-Cherokee Arena.
The Tigers overcame a 14-point third-quarter deficit to squeak out a 60-59 victory, securing their second Cherokee County championship in the past three seasons.
"We never gave up," Cedar Bluff senior forward DeAngelo Hardy said. "We knew it was going to be a tough game from the beginning. Spring Garden came out ready to play, but we were able to make more plays toward the end of the game. It just feels good (to win another county championship)."
Hardy was a major reason why the Tigers (13-7) were able to make their dramatic comeback and prevent Spring Garden (12-9) from earning their first county championship since 1998. He scored eight of his game-high 29 points in the fourth quarter.
Hardy brought the Tigers within a point of the Panthers at 54-53 with 3:03 left in the game on a bucket and foul shot. Cedar Bluff took its first lead of the second half at 55-54 on a rebound and putback by senior forward Levi Mintz with 2:33 remaining.
But the Panthers didn't back down. They scored the next four points on a pair of free throws apiece by Will Westbrook and Will Ivey. Those shots gave Spring Garden a 58-55 advantage with 2:11 to go.
That's when the Tigers turned up the defensive pressure and went on a 5-1 run for the final. The last bucket by the Tigers came on a layup by senior guard Terrence Scales with 18.9 ticks left on the clock.
Trailing 60-59, Spring Garden had the game's final possession, but senior guard Josh Hale was forced to shoot a long range shot with 2.3 seconds left. The shot missed the mark and landed in Mintz's hands as time expired.
"We wanted to push them back and make them use as much time as we could before they could get a shot off," Cedar Bluff coach Joe Carpenter said. "He (Hale) might have shot it early, but he still almost hit it anyway. They're real capable of doing that. I think he might have been shooting it to have the tip-in possibility. It's just one of those things at the end of the game where you never know what's going to happen."
Spring Garden coach Ricky Austin said he was proud of how well his Panthers fought, but wishes they could find a way to close out games in the clutch.
The Panthers almost blew a 22-point halftime lead in their last meeting with the Tigers on Dec. 11, but ended up with a 57-56 victory.
"I just wish we would learn how to close out games better that we play so hard in," Austin said. "It's the first championship game we've been in with this group, and I tried to explain to them how you create opportunities for yourself and you've got to learn how to take advantage of them. We've got to learn something from this. We've been in a big game. We've got to learn how to close them out next time. I hate to use the county championship game as a learning experience, but if it does make us better before the season is over, it was worth it. But it's going to take me a long time to forget about this one."
Scales added 12 points, nine rebounds, four assists, four steals and two blocks for Cedar Bluff. Devante Dixon finished with seven points and four boards.
Spring Garden had four players score in double figures, led by senior center Jake Grogan's 12 points. Grogan also had five rebounds.
Ivey, Hale and Westbrook each netted 11 points. Ivey connected on 7 of 8 shots from the free-throw line and also had five boards and four assists. Westbrook pulled down eight boards. Logan Whorton finished with nine points, all on 3-pointers, to go along with five rebounds.
"We've improved and we're learning to fight, but you can't take championship experience away," Austin said. "Cedar Bluff knows how to win big games. They've been in championship games with the critical players they have on their team right now. That was the difference in the game. I can talk about a lot of things. We made plays and they made plays. We missed some plays and they missed some plays. The total story is they know how to win big games, and we have not been in enough big games to understand how to win them. That's the bottom line."
Carpenter said Spring Garden "played their hearts out."
"We were very fortunate to win the game," Carpenter said. "Our kids fought hard at the end. It was nip-and-tuck the last four minutes, and it could have gone either way tonight. Spring Garden's got a lot of tradition, and we're trying to build tradition. I feel for Spring Garden, but I'm happy for our guys too.
"We challenged them before the game that they had a chance to make history at Cedar Bluff. Some of them are the first ones to be on two county championship teams here. We knew we had a hard-fought battle ahead of us. Centre fought us hard in the semifinals. We were fortunate to get by in that game, and again tonight, we were fortunate to get by Spring Garden."
B-Team Boys Championship
Sand Rock 46, Cherokee County 34
CENTRE - Austin Capezza scored a game-high 14 points to lead the Sand Rock B-team Wildcats to a 46-34 victory over Cherokee County Saturday to clinch the county championship.
Michael Wylie added nine points for the Wildcats. Dakoda Mackey contibuted eight points and Lucas Garmany finished with six points.
The Warriors were led by Logan Green's nine points. Collin Edwards had seven points and Morgan Ray finished with six points.
Sand Rock led thoughout the game. The Wildcats held a 9-4 advantage at the end of the first quarter and led 20-12 at halftime. Sand Rock was up 34-23 at the end of three quarters.