By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director
COMING TUESDAY: All-Cherokee County Boys Basketball Team
All one needs to know about what kind of teammate Spring Garden sophomore point guard Ace Austin is can be pinpointed to the Lady Panthers’ only loss last basketball season back in early February. That night she had a bout with food poisoning at Class 6A Oxford.
According to head coach and father Ricky Austin, Ace was “maybe 60 percent” against Oxford and had lost a couple of pounds from the night before. The Lady Panthers lost by six, 59-53.
Despite not feeling up to par, Ace gutted it out. She finished with 11 points, including a long 3-pointer at the buzzer for the final margin.
But not once has Ace used how she felt that night as an excuse for that lone loss.
“We don’t like losing here and I’m not one of those people who like to miss games or practices,” she said. “As a teammate, it’s about perspective. You wouldn’t want one of your teammates to miss a game either. Obviously, that (Oxford game) was not one of our best games. We didn’t play our best game, but sometimes it goes in a good way. I’ve been here before, but some of the others, it might humble them to say ‘Okay, now we’ve got to get back to work’ and not just think we’re already done working. Going into (postseason) we would’ve been undefeated. I’m not saying any of them would’ve thought it would’ve been easy, but I think losing does let you know you’re not the best one out there. That game we weren’t.”
Coach Austin said he wasn’t going to take Ace’s competitive mentality away from that game that night.
“From a coach’s side, if I’ve got a player who’s standing there telling me they’re going to try and play when they’re sick, I’m not going to take that away from them because that’s what all coaches want. That tells a lot about who you are,” Coach Austin said. “I knew in my gut she didn’t need to play. She’s laying there Thursday night, can’t even hold her head up, and she said ‘I’m playing the Oxford game.’ I’m like ‘Okay, I’m not taking that away from you.’ We said we’d take it a minute at a time.”
It’s that toughness that helped Ace average 19.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 4.9 steals for the Class 1A state champion Lady Panthers (36-1) last season. It’s also helped her earn the Cherokee County girls basketball coaches’ selection as their All-County Most Valuable Player.
Ace attributes her toughness to her family.
“I’ve grown up around my brothers (Riley and Cooper Austin) and cousins, Payton (McGinnis) and AJ (Broome) and Madison (Sides). They taught me to be tough. They’ve told me not to be a baby so many times. I’ve heard that my whole life,” she said. “When it comes to something like that, in my head, all I can think about it ‘Don’t be a baby. Don’t worry about that.’ There’s no excuses around here. My brothers are like ‘Grow up’ when we’re in the back yard playing. I think that’s what’s gone through my head so much. It has made me tougher.”
Coach Austin said “the needle is most definitely leaning her way in a lot of things in the game of basketball.”
“She does a great job of bringing what she needs to bring because she has a lot of skill,” he said. “I do think people sort of gravitate toward her when it comes time to make decisions in this game. She’s a coach’s kid. She’s heard us talk about what are good decisions and what are bad decisions. Thankfully she’s been listening. You can say it and repeat it, but listening and absorbing it and wanting to be that person who can change that needle and make it tilt, that’s something everyone doesn’t have. I’m thankful she does listen to when there’s opportunity to learn. I believe she does a good job of bringing that to our team.”
That’s another thing about Ace on the court. Depending on what the opposition throws at the Lady Panthers, there are nights when she needs to score. There are nights when she needs to find her teammates on assists. And, there are nights where she needs to be a lockdown defender.
She just does what her team needs to get a win, and that’s just fine by her.
“Scoring can be fun, but to me, when you drive to the paint, you know you’re going to have a ton of people looking at you, so just being able to get my teammates an open shot is exciting,” Ace said.
When asked what aspect about the game she likes most, Ace said it’s rebounding.
“I like jumping a lot,” she said with a grin.
“She gets excited when she has a double-digit rebound night. That’s something that’s always excited her,” Coach Austin said.
Of the many things Ace does well on the court, Coach Austin said he’s “wowed” by her court vision.
“As I’ve been watching some of the highlight films, I overlooked how well she passed the ball,” he said. “There were times where there would be five girls guarding her in the lane when she would attack. She would make an unbelievable kick out across court to somebody standing there wide open and put the ball precisely in their shot pocket. Her maturity is knowing what my strengths are and bringing that to help us win, but at the same time, I’ve got open teammates and helping them get great shots. I think that really helped us a lot from her position.”
Something else that has helped the Lady Panthers a lot is their camaraderie together. Combined with Ace’s talent, it made for an almost perfect season.
“I’ve never been with a group that got along so well with each other,” Ace said. “It felt like we’re all sisters, just the way we’d bond together at every moment, no matter where we were at. We all love each other.
“When you get along with your teammates you just always have fun. It could be the worst practice ever, but your teammates being there, it does make it better. I don’t think this year we just had a horrible practice.”
Coach Austin said this year’s Lady Panthers were “fun” to coach.
“They always had fun in the right way. It wasn’t ever in a detrimental way,” he said. “The fun at practice was always like a coach needs to see. It was pulling for each other and cheering for each other. It was the same thing in the locker room before games. I never thought this team got uptight in any of the games we played. They were always just as loose as they could be.”
Joining Ace Austin on the All-Cherokee County Team from Spring Garden is senior guard Kayley Kirk, junior center Chloe Rule, junior guard Libby Brown and sophomore forward Maggie Jarrett.
Kirk averaged 12.9 points, 3.6 rebounds, two assists and 1.6 steals. Rule averaged 10.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.2 steals and an assist. Brown averaged 11.2 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.6 steals and 1.9 assists. Jarrett averaged 6.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.9 steals.
Chosen from Cherokee County High School is junior guard Mary Hayes Johnson, junior guard Audrey Haygood and senior guard/forward Ella Garmany.
Johnson averaged 13.4 points, 6.9 rebounds, 3.8 steals and 3.2 assists. Haygood averaged 9.2 points, three rebounds, three assists and 1.7 steals. Garmany averaged 8.5 points and five rebounds.
Sand Rock also has three representatives in junior guard Katelyn StClair, junior forward Zoey Handy and senior guard Jacey Stephens.
StClair averaged 20.7 points, 5.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 2.9 steals. Handy averaged 12.6 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 1.7 assists. Stephens averaged 7.4 points, 2.1 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.3 steals.
Representing Cedar Bluff is freshman point guard Kylie Vadon and junior forward Za’Niya Kyle. Vadon averaged 12.8 points and Kyle averaged 7.6 points for the Lady Tigers last season.
Senior post player Shonda Epps was chosen from Gaylesville. Epps averaged 10.3 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per contest for the Lady Trojans last season.