The will to win: Spain Park wins by one to advance to Final Four
By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor
JACKSONVILLE – Trailing 50-49 with 2:38 to play, Cam Crawford showed his determination for the Spain Park Jaguars in the biggest moment of his career.
Playing with every ounce of energy he had, Crawford took the ball down the right side of the lane with long strides powering by a Huntsville defender alongside him to lay in what became the game-winning basket to send Spain Park to the Final Four.
“I feel like I’m one of the leaders. I’m built for this. I’ve been playing basketball my whole life and I live for big moments. In year’s past, I might not have stepped up, but today, I did,” Crawford said after leading the Jaguars to a 51-49 victory against the Panthers in the Elite Eight at Jacksonville State on Thursday, Feb. 24.
The win comes three years into head coach Chris Laatsch’s tenure, who took over a struggling team and has taken them to the Elite Eight last year two years in a row and now has the Jags in the Final Four.
“Overwhelmed, proud of and happy for these guys,” Laatsch said in his immediate thoughts after the win. “This is my 27th year of coaching and 23rd as head coach. This group is really, really special to me. These guys have bought in. They trust each other, they trust us and they trusted the process. Now, it has paid off.”
Entering last year, Spain Park had won a combined 12 games the previous two seasons with 43 losses.
Now, they’ve made it to two straight Elite Eights and to the Final Four with a combined 45 wins and 18 losses. The Jags are 27-6 this year, which puts them two wins from setting a new school record for wins, which would come if they win this year’s championship.
But the opportunity wouldn’t have happened without Crawford’s impressive performance on the offensive end throughout the game and Spain Park’s defense as a whole.
After Crawford’s made basket with 2:31 left, the nerves of both teams got the better of them as the Jags missed two opportunities down low, while Huntsville missed free throws and couldn’t capitalize.
The Panthers had a shot at the buzzer that almost banked in for the win, but instead hit the middle of the square on the back board before bouncing off the back of the rim and away from the basket to cement the win for Spain Park.
Huntsville entered the final quarter trailing by eight points after Crawford hit a buzzer-beater to end the third quarter as well, which became big late.
After crossing the half-court line, Crawford dribbled to his left before crossing back to his right and dribbling hard inside the circle before stepping back to drain a 3-pointer that put Spain Park up 45-37 at the end of three.
Huntsville started the final quarter on a 10-3 run to tie the game at 47-47 with 3:19 to play before Crawford hit two free throws to put Spain Park in front by two points.
The Panthers came right back with a 3-pointer to take their first lead since the second quarter.
But Crawford’s final shot was the difference, while Spain Park’s defense contested every game-winning shot attempt from Huntsville over the final 2:30.
“I was real proud of our kids because every timeout it was ‘We’re good and we’re going to win it,’” Laatsch said. “We fight and we believe. We’ve got a resilient and high-character group. We’ve had great starts most of the year and some big halftime leads that have evaporated. It was my job to not allow that to happen and they did what they needed to today to win it.”
While the second half was a back-and-forth offensive battle, the two defenses made life difficult for one another in the opening half.
It was Huntsville that got the scoring started with an and-1 through contact for an early 3-0 lead.
But that started a back-and-forth quarter that saw both teams fighting for points.
Crawford started the scoring for the Jags with a strong take inside, before Huntsville went on to take a 6-3 lead.
Spain Park answered back with two free throws from J.R. Lambert and another strong take from Crawford to grab the lead for the first time with 4:33 left in the quarter.
The lead changed three more times after that with Huntsville eventually taking a 13-9 lead late in the quarter.
But shortly after a big block on a fast break defensively, Crawford came back with a big 3-pointer to trim the deficit to 13-12 going to the second quarter.
Shortly after that, he was also tangled up going for a loose ball out of bounds in front of the Spain Park bench. That’s when every single one of his teammates jumped up and sprinted to help him up, which showed the team was in it as a unit for the long haul.
Crawford followed his shot to end the first with an offensive put back to start the second quarter that put the Jags back in front.
Then, after Huntsville took a 16-14 lead, the Jags responded with one of their best stretches of the day with an 11-1 run to end the quarter, which included Lambert working through a hounding defense in the final seconds to drain a buzzer beater and put them in front 25-17 at the break.
What was a defensive first half completely changed in the second half as the two teams combined for 40 points alone in the third quarter.
Huntsville battled back to within five a couple of times early in the quarter, which got the Panthers’ crowd back into the game quickly in the second half and set the tone for an offensive battle.
But Blake Floyd and Colin Turner started strong to help the Jags jump back in front by 10 points.
Floyd got a layup off a steal and a 3-pointer, while Turner was on the receiving end of a full-court pass for one basket and got an offensive board and put back for another.
That put Spain Park ahead 34-24, but Huntsville went on a quick 6-0 run to make it 34-30.
Crawford hit a big 3-pointer to stop the run before Huntsville came right back with one of its own to make it 37-33 in the final 1:30 of the third quarter.
After the Panthers made four free throws in a row, they cut the deficit to five points and gained momentum, but that’s when Crawford showed his determination with the buzzer beater before the exciting final quarter unfolded.
“Last year, in the Elite Eight game, he had statistically the worst game of his career,” Laatsch said. “Tonight, he went for 21 and 13 and just made play after play. I know that’s in the back of his mind. It wasn’t just statistically today, but he did it being a leader during every timeout and in the locker room. I’m proud of how he answered the call today.”
But it was more than just Crawford’s double-double, it was a team effort in the win. Turner was big in the post with 13 points, seven rebounds and two blocks, while Floyd, Lambert, Josh Harrington, Marshall Hay, Braden DiClemente and Dawson DeFalco all either had big baskets or important plays on the defensive end of the floor.
They all bought in to redeeming last year’s loss in the Elite Eight to Mountain Brook by seven points.
“It’s that feeling you dream of as a kid,” Harrington said of making it to the Final Four. “Getting there last year and losing in the Elite Eight makes it so much more fun this year.”
Spain Park will now play in the Final Four for the first time since 2016 on Tuesday, March 2 at 4:30 p.m. inside Bartow Arena.
Photos available at Shelbycountyphotos.com.
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