Spain Park loses Final-Four heartbreaker in double OT at the buzzer
By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor
BIRMINGHAM – A game that started about basketball for the Spain Park Jaguars ended in a heartbreaking moment that helped a group of young basketball players grow even closer together.
When Enterprise’s Joshua McCray put through an offensive put back as the buzzer sounded to give the Wildcats a 57-56 double-overtime win in the Final Four, hearts ripped apart for the Jaguars.
But in that gut-wrenching moment, Spain Park’s players, including the eight seniors on the team, had one last moment of adversity to overcome in a journey that has been remarkable.
“I’m super, super proud of our kids. This group has eight seniors, and they’ve been through a lot of adversity. A lot of people don’t know this, but we’ve had three deaths within our program in the last two years that are really close to us,” head coach Chris Laatsch said through painful tears. “These guys, through that adversity, have just grown together.”
One of the starters on the team lost his father at the beginning of last year, former starter Parker Boswell died before this season and assistant coach Joel Floyd and son Blake Floyd, who was a senior starter, lost a dad and grandfather in December.
“These guys have been resilient, they love each other, they pull for each other, and I couldn’t be more proud of them if they had won today,” Laatsch said.
So while the heartbreak of losing in the Final Four by one point will be a difficult pill to swallow, Spain Park’s 2020-2021 basketball team has tackled much more together, and they’ll get through one last hurdle together as well.
That tone is something that was set by this year’s strong senior class, which has now paved the way for a bright future.
“It hurts for everybody, but I hurt mainly for our senior class,” junior guard Josh Harrington said. “They carried through and bought in for three straight years. I’ll never forget them and what they did for me.”
It was a group that was forced to deal with a coaching change after their freshman season, which featured five wins.
But they bought in to Laatsch as their new head coach and went from five wins to the Elite Eight last year and to the Final Four this year with more than 40 combined wins in that stretch.
“Cam (Crawford), anytime I did something, he told me ‘We’ve got this, we were built for this,” junior Colin Turner said after the loss. “He and all the other seniors were always encouraging me to keep fighting and were the best leaders.”
And that’s something Spain Park put on display throughout the game.
In an exciting back-and-forth start to the game, Spain Park was able to take the early lead at the end of the opening quarter thanks to Harrington scoring seven points as part of a 10-2 run to close the period.
That put the Jags up 17-11 heading to the second quarter.
Spain Park grabbed an eight-point lead early in the second quarter, but the Wildcats found a way to respond with a 9-3 run to close the first half, which saw the Jags take a 22-20 lead into the break.
The Jags, however, responded with a 5-0 run out of the break and eventually went on to grab an eight-point lead once again off a J.R. Lambert 3-pointer with 1:41 left.
But Enterprise stormed back to close the third.
The Wildcats ended the period on an 8-0 run over the final 1:12 of the game with seven of those points coming in the final 22 seconds of the period.
With a 3-pointer at the buzzer, Enterprise came back to tie the game at 36-36 heading to the final quarter.
“They did a great job,” Laatsch said. “The way we ended the third quarter, I think it kind of set them up with a lot of confidence.”
And the Wildcats carried that confidence into the final quarter, eventually extending the run to 14-0 to take a 42-36 lead early in the period.
But Spain Park, through all the adversity they’ve seen, knew it was going to take more than that to lose.
The Jags trailed by six for a good portion of the period and by five late in the quarter, but they found a rhythm over the final 2:37. The defense stepped up and held Enterprise scoreless, while the Jags got two free throws from Turner and a 3-pointer from Floyd to make it 46-44 with 1:31 left.
Then, late in the game, the senior leader stepped up.
Out of a timeout, Crawford had a powerful take to the basket and beat the outstretched arm of the defender to tie the game at 46-46 with seven seconds left and force overtime.
“They were going to keep fighting. That’s been our group. It was always, ‘Hey, we got this, we’re going to get it back,’” Laatsch said. “They believe. Even when it looked bleak with a minute to go down five, they found a way to get it done.”
The Wildcats jumped back up by three early in overtime, but Turner stepped up in a big way to keep Spain Park alive. The junior powered through contact for an and-1 and then hit a layup through more contact with 52 seconds left to give the Jags a 51-49 lead.
Enterprise, however, responded with a layup with 10 seconds left to tie the game and force a second overtime after Crawford had a shot come up short at the buzzer.
In the second overtime, Spain Park scored first and went on to grab a 56-53 lead on two free throws from Lambert with 1:37 to play.
But the Wildcats found some double-overtime heroics.
A layup with 30 seconds left brought them to within a point, before a turnover by Spain Park bringing the ball up the court gave it right back to the Enterprise with 20 seconds to play.
Spain Park played strong defense and forced a timeout right as the Wildcats had a player jump to shoot the ball, which was missed with 3.7 seconds to play.
On the ensuing inbounds play, however, the ball slipped through Lambert’s hands for what was a near steal and found its way into the hands of McCray.
McCray missed the first shot with 1.5 seconds left, but leapt up, grabbed his own miss and tapped it in as the buzzer sounded to give the Wildcats a 57-56 victory.
The game ended on an offensive rebound, which cost the Jags throughout. Enterprise outrebounded the Jags 37-22 for the game, including 19-6 on the offensive end of the floor.
“That just shows the amount of effort and passion that they play with,” Laatsch said after catching the stat after the game.
Spain Park was led by Turner with 18 points and eight rebounds, while Harrington added 12 points. Lambert was just behind with nine points and three rebounds, while Crawford and Floyd finished their final games with six points each. Crawford also added five rebounds and shared the ball with five assists.
“These are great kids. I love my players,” Laatsch said. “I told them in the locker room a minute ago, but the only thing I asked for was a great attitude and great effort, and they gave me that. I wish I could have done more for them.”
But through everything the Jaguars have fought through as a team the last few years, they’re in a better spot now because of it, and this loss will be no different according to their head coach.
“I think our program is moving in the right direction,” Laatsch said. “These seniors have taken a group that had five wins when they were freshman to being in the Final Four as seniors.”