Once again tears flowed after the Skyline girls basketball team’s postseason meeting with Spring Garden.
But this time, they were tears of joy.
No. 3-ranked Skyline got past its postseason nemesis to advance to the Class 1A State Tournament, defeating No. 2 and defending state champion Spring Garden 60-53 in the Northeast Regional championship game Tuesday at Jacksonville State University’s Pete Mathews Coliseum.
It was a sweet win for the Vikings, who had suffered season-ending losses to Spring Garden the previous four seasons, including in the regional final the previous two seasons.
“It’s a great feeling,” said Skyline senior point guard Caity Ledwell. “I don’t know how to explain it because it hasn’t hit me yet.”
Skyline (28-6) plays Southwest Regional champion St. Luke’s Episcopal (24-9) of Mobile in the Class 1A State Tournament semifinals on Monday at noon at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex’s Legacy Arena. The other 1A state semifinal is Northwest Regional champion Phillips (24-10) vs. Southeast Regional champion Westminster-Oak Mountain (21-8).
It’s Skyline’s first state tournament appearance since the 2000-01 season.
“It’s big for these girls,” said Skyline head coach Ronnie McCarver. “They just fought and fought and fought. They knew they could win. I knew they could win. We’ve got some seniors that have been trying to get past [Spring Garden], trying to get [to state], so to finally win, I’m tickled for them.”
Spring Garden, which had played in four straight state championship games, suffered its first loss in the Northeast Regional since losing to Skyline in the 2014 regional semifinals.
“I just think Skyline was just better than us,” said Spring Garden head coach Ricky Austin. “They were a little bit quicker, shot the ball well. We had a hard time defending them, couldn’t stay in front of them. You just tip your hat to a team that’s better than you, out-played you. There’s nothing you can say. We just got out-played, and I was afraid they could do that.”
Regional tournament MVP Bailee Usrey scored 30 points and grabbed five rebounds for Skyline. Lexie Stucky recorded eight points and seven rebounds and Madison Smith had six points and eight rebounds while Alli McAllister had six points, Gracie Stucky had four points, Aidan Bellomy had three points and all-regional tournament selection Ledwell had three points and four assists.
Neely Welsh scored 18 points for Spring Garden (25-8) while Payton McGinnis added 12 and AJ Broome had 10.
Unlike previous meetings when Skyline started slowly, the Vikings held an 8-3 lead after one quarter. Spring Garden, which did not make a field goal in the first quarter, surged in front 21-19 at halftime on Macy Reed’s buzzer-beating bucket. The teams traded basket for most of the third quarter, but Skyline closed the frame with a 9-0 run. Skyline’s Lexie Stucky’s basket tied the game at 32-all with just under two minutes left in the quarter, and Ledwell swished a deep three from the top of the key to give the Vikings the lead. A layup and two free throws from Usrey gave Skyline a 39-32 lead entering the fourth quarter, which began with a basket and two 3-pointers from Usrey to push the Vikings’ lead to 47-34 with six minutes remaining.
Spring Garden came charging back, however, pulling as close a three twice down the stretch. But Skyline wouldn’t fold, getting key baskets from Gracie Stucky and Lexie Stucky before Usrey made 7 of 8 free throws in the final minute to close it out.
“We made a good run, stretched it out. There was no doubt they were going to make a run back at us because they’re an elite, championship program,” said Skyline assistant coach T.J. Perry.
“I feel like our girls were in a refuse to lose [mode]. We made the plays when they counted. We knew this was a chance to get [to state]. They maximized that opportunity.”
Usrey said Skyline was determined to leave Jacksonville with a different feeling than previous seasons.
“We got some momentum going and we just went with it. Everybody played hard. I think we played as team. We wanted it. We wanted it so bad,” Usrey said. “[Spring Garden had] beat us to go to Birmingham every year. We really wanted to win. It kind of feels great to give them what we’ve been tasting. This is what we’ve been waiting for since last year.”