By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director
CENTRE – Spring Garden sophomore point guard Ace Austin scored her 2,000th point in an already remarkable basketball career in a 59-23 victory over Cherokee County on Friday night. The Lady Panthers clinched their fourth consecutive county championship with the win.
While the game ball is certainly a special one for her, there was another “ball” Austin and the rest of her Lady Panther teammates wanted even more.
During the tournament trophy presentations, the Lady Panthers received a die cut Cherokee County plaque from Cherokee County Schools Superintendent Mike Welsh. But the traditional gold ball trophy was nowhere to be found at the scorers table.
The Lady Panthers weren’t leaving the Gadsden State-Cherokee Arena without it.
“It’s important to get that thing back in there (Spring Garden trophy case),” Austin said. “It’s always been a tradition. Every time we bring the trophy back here, (Coach Ricky Austin) always tells us ‘This thing better be back in our trophy case.’ We were like ‘Are they not going to give us the trophy (ball)? We want to make sure that thing is going back in our trophy case.’”
After a few moments –which seemed like an eternity to the Lady Panthers – the gold ball trophy had made its way to the court, and all was well.
“I know what it means to this bunch,” Coach Austin said. “We have a ceremony when we take it out of the trophy case, and we have a ceremony we got through when we put it back in the trophy case. That thing gets put in by our seniors. It does not get touched again until the next year’s seniors take it out. It’s a big deal. We’ve got one senior on this team (Kayley Kirk) and these girls were not walking off this floor without Kayley Kirk getting that gold ball back. I’m glad it still means that much to them. It was just delayed for a few minutes, but we got it.”
The younger Austin was a big reason why the Class 1A, No. 1 Lady Panthers (25-0) were able to secure the gold ball in the trophy case once again. She scored a game-high 27 points, including a pair of 3-pointers and a 9-of-10 performance from the free-throw line. She eclipsed the 2,000-point barrier on a basket with 5:07 remaining in the second quarter, which put the Lady Panthers up 20-5.
Ace Austin, who picked up a college basketball offer from the University of Alabama earlier this week, said she was aware she had a shot at securing her latest accomplishment coming into Friday’s championship game, but she tried not to think about it.
“I was aware I was getting close, but I wasn’t going to let that affect the way I played,” she said. “That was not what I was worried about. I was wanting to get that trophy (ball) back at our place.”
Ace Austin scored 16 of her points by halftime, in which the Lady Panthers led 33-8. In the early stages of the game, however, the Lady Panther offense had trouble getting into rhythm.
Both teams were scoreless until an Ace Austin free throw at the 4:01 mark of the quarter. Kirk scored the first basket with 3:22 to go to make it 3-0. By the quarter’s end, Spring Garden led 11-2.
“She broke the ice for us,” Coach Austin said of his daughter. “Probably the center of their (Cherokee County’s) game plan was to not let her get going early. We don’t really force that early. We try to facilitate and get others into it early, but when it was time, I called her play and she got us going. She was steady all the way through. I thought she did a good job of keeping the ship steady like a point guard is supposed to do. Maybe you could say we were rattled because we didn’t score early, but we were very calm with her and knowing what she was able to do.”
While Ace Austin broke the ice for the Lady Panthers in the first half, Libby Brown did her part to get them rolling in the third quarter. She scored nine of her 13 points in the third, which helped propel the Spring Garden out to a 54-18 advantage.
Brown also had a pair of treys, as did Kirk, who had eight points. Chloe Rule also finished with eight points.
Coach Austin was also proud of how well his defense limited the Lady Warrior shooters. None of them reached double figures.
Mary Hayes Johnson topped the Lady Warriors (16-6) with eight points, including a pair of 3-pointers. Audrey Haygood added six points.
“We didn’t shoot well early, but our defense affected the game, and that’s something you can count on every night,” he said. “We did it in multiple ways with our defense tonight. I was kind of glad we went through that in a big game. We need that feeling. We don’t have that feeling enough. I felt like we maybe grew tonight. At halftime, it was a situation where we could teach, and after the game we could teach. Obviously there will be some film study we can teach.
“We’re not going to shoot it well every night. We had to grind. I’ve got to give them credit. They were on our shooters tight and they helped on the drive. They made it tough early. It was a great game in more ways than just winning the county championship. It was a great game for us to get better.”
Ace Austin agrees with her dad’s assessment.
“Being able to win these types of championships, it teaches you how to show up in a big game,” she said. “It is a normal game, but it shows you you’ve got to be focused. That helps you for an area championship, a region championship and a state championship. It’s not like we’re going to change much, but we’re just going to keep doing our thing and keep working for state.”