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Panthers fall to Sacred Heart in Final Four rematch

Georgiana guard Jamichael Stallworth drives past Sacred Heart’s leading scorer, D.J. Heath, in the Panthers’ 82-55 loss to the Cardinals.

For two quarters, the Georgiana Panthers not only weathered the storm from the two-time defending state champion Sacred Heart Cardinals, but brought the rain themselves in a neck-and-neck first half.

But a blistering third quarter from the Cardinals’ D.J. Heath—who scored 12 of Sacred Heart’s first 13 points of the second half—turned Georgiana’s molehill of a 7-point halftime deficit into a mountain as the Cardinals ran away with an 82-55 win.

Georgiana head basketball coach Kirk Norris said that it was a big accomplishment for his Panthers to make it back to Birmingham for two years, given the talent lost to last year’s senior class.

Norris and the Panthers returned with a tweaked game plan that played dividends in the first half, but was neutralized by Heath’s stellar individual performance in the second.

“We’re an up-tempo team, but we knew we couldn’t play that game to compete with them,” Norris said. “We tried to pack it in, run a little clock off and get really good shots, if we could, close to the goal or open shots outside.”

That worked until Sacred Heart’s Kevion Nolan jumpstarted the Cardinals’ offense from beyond the arc with a flurry of 3-pointers.

“Other than [Nolan], they really struggled for a while. The turnovers in transition during the third quarter was really what got us.  But I thought game plan-wise the kids bought in and did what we had to do to play with them at their level.”

Georgiana junior Jamichael Stallworth said that the competitive first half was a result of advice from Norris that the Cardinals’ armor could crack, if enough pressure were applied.

“Coach had already told us from the beginning that if they don’t get a big lead in the first quarter, they start panicking,” Stallworth said.

“So we played ball, and we saw that Coach was right.  But then they came out in the third quarter, and pushed the ball more and attacked us.”

Georgiana senior Nizaiah Smith echoed his teammate’s sentiments, adding that he tried to avoid the underdog mentality heading into the matchup.

“It boosted our confidence,” Smith said. “Some of our players were like they couldn’t believe we were hanging with them.

“Personally, we came in for redemption.  Never in our minds did we think we would lose.  We just kept competing, and it just went the other way.”

Though Monday marked Smith’s final game of high school basketball, Stallworth aims to make it three consecutive Final Four appearances for Georgiana during his senior year next season.  And for him, the journey back to Birmingham begins in just a few short months.

“It’s going to start in the summer, just like this year,” Stallworth said. “The summer made us a different team.  If you look from where we started in the summer, you would think that Georgiana was terrible. “We’re going to have some spots to fill for the young guys, but I think they’ll be ready.”

Smith closed his high school career with yet another double-double performance of 20 points and 11 rebounds.

Stallworth added 12 points to the Panthers’ total.

Heath led Sacred Heart with 27 points, with 20 points from Dakota Myers 15 points and 10 rebounds from Diante Wood.

Sacred Heart will face South Lamar Thursday for a potential third consecutive state championship.