By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director
SPRING GARDEN – It was an interesting 24 hours for Spring Garden junior point guard Ace Austin.
On Friday, she announced her college commitment to the University of Alabama on social media. She’s heard lots of Roll Tides from her friends, followers and family, particularly older brothers Riley and Cooper Austin.
“Walking through the house, all I can hear is Cooper and Riley saying ‘Roll Tide, Roll Tide, Roll Tide.’ That’s what I like to hear now,” Ace said.
While that’s all well and good at home and off the court, Ace knows there’s still more work to be done. That work began on Saturday in the defending Class 1A state champion Lady Panthers’ 2023-24 season opener against Class 5A Sylacauga.
Ace turned the page from her college commitment announcement. She netted a game-high 28 points and added 12 assists, seven rebounds, four steals and two blocks as Spring Garden crushed the Lady Aggies 84-29.
“She wanted to move on,” Lady Panther head coach and Ace’s father Ricky Austin said. “More coaches have been talking to her, and were really wanting to start coming to games now, more phone calls at night. I think she got to the point where she felt like if she said ‘Y’all just come on to the game’ it might be leading them in the wrong direction if that wasn’t really who she wanted to play for. I think that just started sitting on her heart a little bit, who she wanted to play for. She didn’t want to waste anybody’s time.”
“I guess you could say I wanted to get (the decision) out of the way,” Ace said. “I called them (Alabama) Monday. Sunday night was when I decided Alabama was where I wanted to go. I didn’t want to just do it this week because our first game was this week. I just felt like it was time. I’d put some thought into it, just laying down and thinking about it, and I thought it was time.
“Being able to do it before the season started, there’s relief not having to worry about it. I’m excited, but now I can just focus on high school. I’ve got my college decision made. Now I don’t have to focus going through that. Now I can just focus on the season.”
Speaking of focused, the Lady Panthers (1-0) were near razor-sharp. They picked up where they left off last season, and proved there was no hangover from winning their first Class 1A volleyball title since 2007.
“Tonight was a test to see if we’ve been doing the right things (at practice),” Spring Garden head coach Ricky Austin said. “I told them after the game I didn’t think anybody looked tired. I thought we had a lot of energy, got up and down the court very well. There’s probably about 10 or 12 plays we could probably watch film and think we could handle better the situation, but we’re not stressing over it. It was a good start. We had some offensive flow. Our shots looked good going up. We saw the floor good for the most part and defended pretty good. I’m pretty pleased with our start.”
In addition to Ace, another of the Lady Panther shooters looked good.
Senior guard Libby Brown delivered 23 points, including seven 3-pointers. Six of those treys were in the second half. Brown also seven steals and four assists.
“Coach Dana (Austin) said just keep shooting, even if I go 2-for-25. That’s really the mindset I came out with (in the second half),” Brown said. “It feels good to be back. I’m so glad we’re back playing basketball. I love volleyball and everything, but it feels good to be back in my natural environment.”
Brown proved nifty with the passes as well. Late in the game, she made a behind-her-head delivery to a teammate that drew a raised eyebrow reaction from the crowd. It was a pass that Ace Austin said was ‘an 11 out of 10.’
“I was like ‘Coach Rat did it in practice, so I’m going to try it. If he can do it I guess I can do it’ so I tried it,” Brown joked.
Coach Austin said he’s glad Brown had been paying attention.
“I did that in practice demonstrating something to them,” Coach Austin said. “She’s always trying to one-up me.”
Spring Garden went on a 9-0 run to begin the game and held a 25-9 advantage at the end of the first quarter.
Maggie Jarrett scored seven straight points to begin the second for the Lady Panthers, pushing their lead to 32-9. By halftime, the game was out of reach for the Lady Aggies at 53-17.
Jarrett collected 12 points, five rebounds, five assists and two steals for Spring Garden. Chloe Rule and Olivia Law both finished with eight points.
Journey Smith scored 14 points to lead Sylacauga. Destinee Ealy finished with nine points.
Next up for Spring Garden is a tournament at the Supreme Courts in Guntersville. The Lady Panthers play on Monday and Tuesday against Hamilton and Deshler respectively.
“We’ll see where we are Monday and Tuesday a little bit more,” Coach Austin said.