By Joe Medley, East Alabama Sports Today
BIRMINGHAM — Ace Austin made her first substantial basketball promise to her dad as a third-grader.
Seven years later, she’s the promise that keeps on delivering.
The sophomore delivered 33 points in a performance that won her most valuable player of the Class 1A Final Four, and Spring Garden fulfilled a promising season by beating Marion County 62-39 in Thursday’s state final.
The Panthers (36-1) won their program’s seventh state title and first since 2020, when a smaller, seventh-grade version of Austin scored 10 points on the state’s biggest stage, and in the state’s biggest game.
Back with four other players who were on that roster, and who suffered Northeast Regional disappointments Spring Garden’s two-year foray in Class 2A, she ruled the floor, leaving her head coach and father nostalgic.
“We’ve had conversation since she was in the third grade,” Ricky Austin said. “We lost when she was in the third grade and headed back over to the hotel, and the whole team is in front of us crying.
“She tugs on my arm, and I look down, and she says, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll be back.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ She said, ‘When I’m in the seventh grade, we’ll be back,’ and I said, ‘Can I hold you to that for seven years?'”
Perhaps only the fortunes of reclassification prevented Ace-led Spring Garden from coming up all aces over her career. A large senior class caused the school to bump up to 2A for the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years.
Pisgah, led by 6-foot floor-leader phenom Molly Heard, bumped down from 3A in the same two years, and Spring Garden lost to Pisgah at the Northeast Regional both years.
Spring Garden bumped back down to his traditional home in 1A for the current two-year reclassification cycle, and the Panthers proved to be unstoppable.
That dominance showed Thursday, as Marion County committed 24 turnovers to Spring Garden’s six, and the Panthers took 18 more shots and outscored their opposition 28-2 in points off of turnovers.
“It’s been two years since we’ve won, so it’s been about 700-and-something days, and that’s all we’ve heard at practice,” Ace Austin said. “It’s been 700-and-something days since we’ve been at state.
“I think we were about tired of hearing that, over and over, so we were going to make sure that it wasn’t going to be even more days.”
Ace Austin certainly didn’t do it alone. As she did all year, lone senior and 3-point-shooting ace Kayley Kirk went 4-for-9 from the arc and finished with 14 points Thursday and made the all-tournament team.
Wing shooter Libby Brown went 2-for-11 Thursday, but her 18-point performance in a semifinal rout of Loachapoka helped to land her on the all-tournament team.
Add center Chloe Rule and hustle-play specialist Maggie Jarrett, and Ace Austin had elements around her that made Spring Garden able to punish teams that focused too much on her.
Marion County’s Porshai Lipsey tried her best to harass Ace Austin on Thursday. At 5:17 of the fourth quarter, after picking fouls on consecutive defensive trips, she looked to the Marion County bench, extended her arms and said, “What am I supposed to do?”
Ace Austin flexed her super powers most early in the third quarter and from the free-throw line in the fourth.
With Spring Garden leading 31-22 at halftime, she scored Spring Garden’s first six points of the third quarter in rapid succession. All came on drives, including a Michael Jordan-style, change-of-hands layup with her left hand.
That drew a glance and grin from Kirk as the Panthers retreated to their defensive end, and Ricky Austin had a moment.
“When she made that shot, I had flashbacks of in our driveway, when she was in second grade,” he said. “She’d go out and try all of those crazy shots, and she and her brother would go out and challenge each other. That was the first thing that come to my mind.
“Yeah, for a second or two, I was like, ‘Wow.'”
Spring Garden entered the fourth quarter with a 51-35 lead and turned to Ace Austin to handle the ball and get fouled. She hit 11 of 14 free throws for the game, 9 of 10 in the fourth quarter.
As much as her performance made her dad and all watchers flash back to the much younger version of herself that dribbled confidently on the Legacy Arena floor in 2020, it also tempts everyone to look forward.
Ace Austin has two state titles on her watch and two more seasons to go. Spring Garden will return everyone but Kirk next season.
Ricky Austin knows he’ll have good teams and the best player on the floor most nights.
“I’m glad she’s on my team,” he said. “Special player.”