JACKSONVILLE — To say Jaci Ace Austin was born to be a point guard is an understatement.
She says her parents got her middle name from former Tennessee point guard Kristen "Ace" Clement, who played on the Lady Vols' undefeated national championship team in 1998. Her father, Ricky Austin, is her head basketball coach at Spring Garden, and her mother, Dana Austin, is an assistant coach and was so highly regarded in her own college basketball career at Jacksonville State that her jersey number is hanging in the rafters at Pete Mathews Coliseum.
Their daughter goes by her middle name, Ace, and this is her time now at the coliseum, which is hosting the Northeast Regional.
A 5-foot-1 seventh-grader, Ace made her regional debut Thursday, and it was a good one. Directing the Spring Garden attack, she had 21 points, eight rebounds, six assists, three steals and only one turnover in Spring Garden's 66-37 win over Skyline, which is the team that eliminated the Panthers in last year's regional final.
This is the fourth straight time Spring Garden and Skyline have meet in the regional finals, with Spring Garden winning three.
"I've been coming up here ever since I was little, watching it," Ace Austin said afterward. "I've been on this court. I wasn't as nervous as I thought I was going to be. I stepped up there like a normal game.
The mighty mite dribbled through and around Skyline, sometimes looking like a gold, white and maroon flash with a thin brown ponytail trailing behind.
She set the tone for the Panthers (32-2), who will play Talladega County Central (22-9) in Monday's regional finals at 3 p.m.
"It makes everybody's job easier to have a good point guard," said teammate Neely Welsh, who produced 15 points and six rebounds. "We trust she's going to make good decisions with the ball."
That statement validated what Ricky Austin said later, unaware of what Welsh had told reporters: "I'm proud of how her teammates really support her, being a seventh-grader," he said.
Spring Garden's plan resulted in more spacing on the floor than the Panthers sometimes get, and that just opened up the game for Austin, who took a team-high 14 shots and scored more than she typically does. Most of her shots came near the basket. She attempted only one 3-pointer, which she made.
"I've got a pretty neat little point guard who can find some cracks and get in there and put up some soft shots," Ricky Austin said. "We love to get the ball in her hands in transition."
He added, "She's got a lot of her mother in her. It's in her DNA. You can't go wrong there."
The day went about as well as Ricky Austin could've hoped for his daughter.
"I'm very proud of how she handled things down here," he said. "She got ready to go to bed last night, and she told her mom, 'I'm not even nervous. I'm not even nervous.' I told her, 'Well, you will be tomorrow.' I thought she was going to pass out in warmups, but she handled that well."
Even with Ace Austin's performance, she was hardly the only star for Spring Garden, which turned the tables completely from a year ago when the Panthers lost 60-53 to Skyline on this stage.
The plan was to be aggressive, and although it took some time, Spring Garden executed that idea well enough to take firm control. Skyline led 9-4 early, but the Panthers eventually caught up and led 32-20 at halftime, with the last points coming when Austin drove to the basket, put a fake on her defender, and lifted a layup into the basket right before the buzzer.
In the third quarter, Spring Garden outscored Skyline 24-5.
"We talked about coming out and playing the hardest and being the aggressor in the whole game and how we couldn't let up," Welsh said. "We had to go hard the whole entire time, because they weren't the kind of team you mess around with. You can't play them close and expect it to be easy."
Alexis Adkison added 13 points and grabbed a team-high 11 rebounds as Spring Garden built a 44-24 rebounding advantage. Macy Reedy scored seven points, and Kayle Kirk added four points and four rebounds. Breanna Rogers provided rebounding support off the bench by grabbing six boards.
For Welsh, who remembered the sting of losing last year to Skyline, this one was more fun.
"I felt we had a chip on our shoulder because of last year. It was very unexpected," she said. "We wanted to win last year but we just didn't pull it out like we wanted to."