The fourth time playing Spring Garden proved to be the charm, as the Lady Tigers earned a 47-43 victory that propels them to Birmingham for the first time in school history.
The Lady Tigers (17-15) will play in the state semifinals on Tuesday at 3 p.m. at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Complex. They'll take on the winner of Saturday's South Regional final between No. 6 Brantley and top-ranked St. Luke's.
Spring Garden's season ends at 19-13.
"It was an epic battle between two good basketball teams," Cedar Bluff coach Joe Carpenter said. "We came to play tonight. I think we've done a lot of things at home that's brought us all this way. It started back in November, and it took us a while to get there, but they bought in from the get-go. I can't say enough about their effort. We didn't get as rattled tonight as the last time we played them."
As Carpenter mentioned, the last time the Lady Tigers played Spring Garden two weeks ago in the Area 10 championship game, they lost 65-39. But behind Regional MVP Audrianna Hargitt's 15 points, eight rebounds and two steals, Cedar Bluff won when it mattered most on Friday at Pete Mathews Coliseum in Jacksonville.
"It's unbelievable," Hargitt said on her MVP selection. "I couldn't do it without my team and their support. Coach Carpenter and all of the girls keep me up and I just stay calm."
Carpenter said he's proud the Lady Tigers get to move on, but also understands "how it feels to be in the other shoes too", referring to Cherokee County rival Spring Garden.
Lady Panther coach Ricky Austin knows all too well what Carpenter is talking about.
In 2009, his Lady Panthers beat Gaston three times in the regular season, but lost to them 39-33 in the regional final. A year later, the roles were reversed. Spring Garden lost three times to Gaston in the regular season, only to capture a 26-25 victory in the regional final.
"We knew as close as we were matched up with Cedar Bluff, that (fourth time playing) could be the difference," Austin said. "As a coach, there's nothing you can do about that. You can just talk about it with your players and warn them what could happen, but you can't do it so much that it puts pressure on yourself.
"I don't think that pressure was on us. I think our players respected them enough to know this could be very difficult. I think it just goes back to something you can't control as a coach. Cedar Bluff just had that something tonight that we did not have. That was the difference, along with having a player like Audrey who makes you change so much because she forces matchup problems."
Those matchup problems took effect early for Spring Garden. Cedar Bluff came out of the gate on an 8-0 run and led 12-4 at the end of the first quarter. The Lady Tigers' lead swelled to 24-12 at halftime and 35-24 at the end of the third quarter, but Spring Garden wasn't going down without a fight.
The Lady Panthers went on a 19-12 run in the fourth quarter, keyed by the 3-point shooting of guards Madison Sides and Darian Gaines. They managed to cut Cedar Bluff's lead to one at 44-43 on a layup by Haley Motes with 6.2 seconds left in the game.
But the Lady Tigers didn't falter.
Cedar Bluff junior guard Katie McGinnis was fouled with 2.3 seconds remaining. She calmly sank two free throws to push her team's lead to 46-43.
On the in-bounds play, Motes tossed the ball to her right near the mid-court sideline to Sides, but the pass sailed out of bounds with 1.3 seconds left.
Cedar Bluff senior forward Hannah Leach found McGinnis on the ensuing in-bounds play, and McGinnis was promptly fouled with 0.4 seconds remaining.
McGinnis missed the first shot, but drained the second for the final.
"We're in that (close) situation a lot," Carpenter said. "Usually with somebody like that, we've fought them tooth-and-nail. We know we're going to have to keep fighting to win the ball game. They refused to give up tonight at all. We had a spurt there where we kind of got shellshocked, but we fought through it. It's one of those potholes in the road that we drove over and got past."
McGinnis finished with 10 points and joined Hargitt on the all-regional tournament team.
"You can't put this into words," McGinnis said on advancing to the state tournament. "I never thought I'd feel like this. I wasn't expecting it at all. I'm so proud of every single person on my team. Obviously, we couldn't do it if we weren't all together as a team."
Freshman guard Delilah Price added eight points, three rebounds and three steals for Cedar Bluff. Leach finished with five points, six rebounds, two assists and two steals.
Gaines led Spring Garden with 15 points, including a pair of 3-pointers. Sides tallied 12 points on four treys, along with five rebounds and two assists. Motes finished with 10 points, 11 rebounds, two assists and two steals.
Gaines and Sides represented Spring Garden on the all-tournament team.
"This time of the year is all about excitement and heartache," Austin said. "As much as we're hurting on our side, I enjoyed watching Cedar Bluff's players celebrate at the end of the game. They've come from the same place we've come from. I hate it for my team, but I'm excited to see them move forward."