E.A. Sports Today

Spring forward

Spring Garden’s top-ranked girls maintain their inevitable look while dispatching Appalachian in Northeast Regional semifinals.

Cover photo: Spring Garden’s Ace Austin goes up for two of her 21 points against Appalachian on Wednesday in Pete Mathews Coliseum. (Photo by Joe Medley)

By Joe Medley
East Alabama Sports Today

JACKSONVILLE — At this point, Spring Garden’s girls repeating as Class 1A state basketball champions feels inevitable.

And it’s just regional.

Alabama commit Ace Austin led four Panthers in double figures, and 1A’s top-ranked team all season earned a running clock en route to a 74-25 rout of Appalachian in Wednesady’s Northeast Regional semifinals in Pete Mathews Coliseum.

Spring Garden (30-1) will play the Skyline-Winterboro winner Monday at 3 p.m. for the right to go to Birmingham for the Final Four.

Or, as Spring Garden might view, just another part of their season. The Panthers could be forgiven for that.

They’re pursuing the program’s ninth state title and fifth since 2016. But for a two-year bump up to Class 2A, when they ran up against Molly Heard and Pisgah at regional, they’d likey have more.

Spring Garden dominated so thoroughly Wednesday that it played the fourth quarter on a non-stop clock.

That continues the dominant look the Panthers have shown in four games since area tournaments started. The 25 points they allowed Wednesday were the most in that span.

Appalachian managed one second-quarter point and five in the fourth.

Austin added eight steals and six assists to go with her points. Chloe Rule put up 10 points and nine rebounds, Libby Brown 14 points and Maggie Jarrett 13 points.

Oddly enough, veteran Spring Garden coach Ricky Austin noticed his team’s nerves early in Wednesday’s game.

“We did a good job of making sure our defense made a difference early,” he said. “We had to hit a bucket, finally, so we could get some pressure defense. Once that got going, we got some easy buckets and settled some nerves.

“You would think we wouldn’t have nerves, but we kind of encourage nerves this time of year. It helps us with some energy on defense.”

Nerves showed early, but not often. The game became all about Spring Garden, and the postgame became about the Panthers’ comfort in these settings.

Brown and Jarrett brought the smiles and quiet giggles as they, Ricky Austin and Ace Austin fielded questions that covered everything including the 4 a.m. start to their day, ahead of a 9 a.m. tipoff. They had their customary game day breakfast at Jack’s, at 5:30 a.m.

“They hold the tardy bell for us on game days,” Ricky Austin joked.

Among ground covered was Ace Austin’s four fouls and a tight-whistle phenomenon she’s learned to factor in.

“I don’t really want to say they were, but, I mean, they could’ve been,” she said. ” … I didn’t let it bother me, I guess.

“Before the season started, I had referees come up to me and say, ‘You’ve committed now. I think everybody’s going to have a tight whistle on you now.’ I took that. I let it go through my brain. I didn’t just let that bother me, but I’m just going to play my game.”

Asked if she felt bad taking so many steals, Ace Austin showed her comfort in these moments.

“We practice the same amount of days,” she said, “so, no.”

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