By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director
BIRMINGHAM – With all the state championships Spring Garden girls basketball coach head coach Ricky Austin has won, he experienced something different with the Lady Panthers’ latest on Thursday.
He got to personally present the team with their latest blue map.
“That’s different,” he said. “I’ve never done it that way.”
Before Austin handed the trophy over to the Lady Panthers, he took a brief moment to hoist it and point to the Spring Garden crowd in attendance at Legacy Arena in Birmingham to resounding cheers.
“That was special,” Austin said of both moments. “The state called me out there to do it. They called me out there to accept it. I was proud to recognize our community and thank them, but then to turn around and hand it to the girls, yeah, that was a first. That was special.”
“It felt good because I wanted to give it to them. It was earned. It was a hard-fought season, a hard-fought tournament, a hard-fought championship game. I wanted to give them something and reward them. It’s very satisfying.”
Thursday night’s 62-39 victory over No. 5 and defending Class 1A champion Marion County provided the top-ranked Lady Panthers (36-1) with their eighth girls state basketball title and their first since 2020. Austin has been the Lady Panthers’ coach in seven of the eight.
Austin’s daughter, sophomore point guard Ace Austin, earned the Class 1A state tournament’s Most Valuable Player honor. She scored a game-high 33 points, including a pair of 3-pointers, to go along with seven rebounds, five assists and two steals.
Ace was also 11-of-14 from the free-throw line.
“We’ve been working for a state championship since the beginning of this year,” Ace said. “It’s been two years since we’ve won. It’s been about 700-and-something days, and that’s all we’ve heard at practice. It’s been about 700-and-something days since we’ve been at state. I think we were about tired of hearing that over and over. We were going to make sure it wasn’t going to be any more days.”
“She earned it,” Coach Austin said of his sophomore sensation. “She produced for us the way she’s got to do. I’m just proud of her. I’m proud we’ve got an MVP on our team because that means something went really well for us.”
Things certainly did go well for Spring Garden on Thursday. The Lady Panthers jumped out to a 14-5 first-quarter advantage and led 31-22 at halftime.
Ace opened the third quarter with six straight points for the Lady Panthers, then senior guard Kayley Kirk popped a 3-pointer to provide Spring Garden a 43-27 advantage. Kirk’s trey forced Marion County coach Scott Veal into a timeout.
Following the timeout, Kirk connected on another trey. Ace then scored an inside basket which extended the Lady Panther lead to 45-27, prompting another Lady Red Raider timeout.
“In the second quarter, we were up-tempo. We had a little breath to us. We were playing hard and had a little bit of a spark,” Veal said. “Our offense was working. We out-rebounded them (30-24), but then coming out of halftime, we just had a slow start to the third quarter. I knew they were going to come back out at halftime and have an answer. We thought we could play a box-and-one on her, but we just couldn’t. She handles the ball so well. It’s hard to take it from her.”
“That was important,” Coach Austin said of the Lady Panthers’ third-quarter run. “We weren’t real happy with how we played in the first half. We weren’t mad or anything, it just wasn’t a clean half.
“I reminded them at halftime that we’ve just got to play better than they do. It hasn’t got to be pretty. Let’s just play better than they do. Let’s make sure these first three minutes of the third quarter we own them. We did a very good job in the regional championship against Skyline playing the first three minutes. I thought this first three minutes had some similarities to that.”
Spring Garden led 51-33 at the end of the third and outscored Marion County 11-4 in the fourth, setting the stage for Coach Austin’s trophy presentation.
Kirk collected 14 points for the Lady Panthers, including four 3-pointers. Libby Brown sank a pair of treys and had nine points. Maggie Jarrett finished with four points, six boards, three steals and two assists.
Kirk and Brown joined Ace on the all-tournament team.
Jasmine Wilson led Marion County (20-14) with 13 points, five rebounds, two assists and two steals. Porshia Lipsey added 12 points, four boards and two assists. Rachel Roberts rang for 10 points and grabbed 16 rebounds.
Wilson and Roberts were all-tournament selections.