By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director
JACKSONVILLE – During Spring Garden’s press conference following its victory over Winterboro on Monday, sophomore point guard Ace Austin made the statement that the Lady Panthers weren’t going to another Northeast Regional championship game for a third straight time to get beat.
She did all she could on Wednesday to make sure a regional final loss didn’t happen again at Pete Mathews Coliseum.
Austin scored a game-high 31 points, dished out nine assists, grabbed four rebounds and had three steals to lead top-ranked Spring Garden to a 69-47 win over second-ranked Skyline to advance to the Final Four in Birmingham for the first time since 2020.
The Lady Panthers (35-1) will take on the Central Regional champion – either A.L. Johnson or Loachapoka – on Monday at noon at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex. Those two teams will play each other on Thursday morning for the right to join Spring Garden.
“It’s been too long since we’ve been there,” Austin said. “We took two ‘Ls’ to Pisgah (the past two years). I told you we weren’t getting a third one.”
Austin earned the tournament’s Most Valuable Player honor for her effort, but perhaps even more impressive about the Lady Panthers’ regional final win on Wednesday was the surrounding cast.
Three starters weren’t on the court with Austin and senior guard Kayley Kirk last season. Junior center Chloe Rule moved in from Hokes Bluff and junior guard/forward Libby Brown came in from Trion, Ga. Sophomore forward/center Maggie Jarrett was recovering from an injury.
All three complimented Austin’s game well on Wednesday. They were as hungry as she and Kirk were to get to Birmingham.
Rule rang for 16 points and grabbed nine rebounds. Brown sank three 3-pointers for nine points. She also pulled down 11 boards, dished out three assists and had a pair of steals. Jarrett tossed in eight points, including a pair of treys, and grabbed 10 rebounds.
Rule, Brown and Jarrett joined Austin on the all-tournament team.
“It was a lot of hard work to get here,” Rule said. “I’ve never made it further than sub-region. To actually be going to Birmingham for the first time, I really wouldn’t want to do it with another group of people.
“It was weird coming in because it was a completely different atmosphere out there than what I was used to. Any time there’s a mistake made, Coach is obviously going to be on you whenever it happens, but as soon as he quits getting on you, the rest of the team is building you right back up. The family is strong out in the Garden.”
Added Brown: “I came from a school that really didn’t get to state ever. It means a lot to be able to get here.”
Jarrett said it means a lot to her to be back playing full strength.
“Last year, I would’ve been out there, but this year it means more to get out there and play with my family,” she said.
Spring Garden coach Ricky Austin has said before the chemistry this team has is fun to coach, and it showed again on Wednesday.
“I’m very proud of how we played,” Coach Austin said. “Skyline’s a very good team. I can’t lie about it. We’ve been preparing for them for three or four weeks. We’ve been sliding things in practice here and there, and I thought a lot of that preparedness had us ready. We did a great job defensively of recognizing their set plays. We didn’t give them many points off their set plays. The points they did get were off broken plays. I thought that was huge. Our defensive assignments worked really well.
“Ace does a great job finding people. I thought she made some great passes across the court to the girls who were open. All they had to do was get their feet set. It was shooting practice in the third quarter for some of them. They didn’t have a defender on them. They got some really good looks at the basket. They just had to make them. We made just enough to make a difference, and that’s all I ask.”
Spring Garden held a 16-13 advantage at the end of the first quarter, then its defense took over. Skyline went scoreless for almost a five-minute stretch in the second quarter. In that time, the Lady Panthers built a 36-21 advantage heading into the locker room.
But Coach Austin still didn’t “feel a lot of breathing room at halftime.”
“At halftime, we talked about it being 0-0,” Coach Austin said. “I told them I didn’t care if they were behind or ahead at halftime. I said the first four minutes of the third quarter were the most important minutes of every game in the championship round. Let’s go out there and be very aggressive and very assertive defensively. I thought we did a great job.”
The Lady Panthers went on a 13-5 run in the early part of the third quarter to take a 49-26 edge. It was then Coach Austin began to feel a little more comfortable. They went on to close out the quarter with a 61-32 lead.
“We got a couple of easy buckets that made that a little easier in that four-minute stretch. That was a huge moment in the game,” he said. “I felt a little breathing room there. I didn’t feel a lot of breathing room at halftime, but in that four-minute stretch (of the third), that was the difference in the game because of how these guys come out of the locker room.”
Lexie Stuckey led Skyline with 16 points and 10 rebounds. Kaina King contributed nine points, including a pair of 3-pointers, to go along with four assists, three rebounds and a pair of steals. Kenzie Manning and Brinlee Potts both posted eight points.
Stuckey and King represented Skyline on the all-tournament team.
Neither player, along with Skyline coach Ronnie McCarver, were made available to the media following the game. McCarver declined to attend the mandatory post-game press conference.