The Panthers have become tougher.
That toughness was demonstrated Saturday at home against Class 4A Jacksonville, but it wasn't enough to lead the Panthers to victory.
After battling the Golden Eagles bucket for bucket for four quarters, it all came down to one final shot in overtime by Jacksonville senior guard Des Curry.
With just 0.6 seconds left on the clock, it was enough time for Curry to take an in-bound pass and connect on a fadeaway jumper as time expired, lifting the Golden Eagles to a 70-69 win.
"The kid just made a great shot," said Austin, who's Panthers dropped to 2-1. "We knew who was going to shoot it. Obviously, we were trying to keep the ball out of his hands and force him as far away from the basket as we could. I was thinking he was going to get something coming to the basket, in front of the rim. He had to shoot ball, and that's where I'd rather him get the ball at. He just made a good shot, unfortunately for us."
Jacksonville coach Anthony Kingston said the Golden Eagles (2-4) had gone to the game-winning play once before against Anniston last season in a similar situation. The play didn't work then, but it did on Saturday.
Kingston said he was proud of how Curry responded, especially after he was pulled from the game for a short time after Kingston said Curry "wasn't playing good defense."
"I said 'Des, you have to set the tone - offensively and defensively,'" Kingston said. "He has aspirations of playing at the next level, which he has the potential to do, but he has to step his game up in every aspect. He came through and made some big plays. He started communicating well, which I encouraged him to do. He's starting to lead these guys."
Curry led all scorers with 23 points. He also contributed four rebounds, four assists and four steals.
The game was tight throughout. Both teams battled to a 13-all tie at the end of the first quarter. Jacksonville held a 28-25 advantage at halftime and a 45-43 lead heading into the fourth.
Trailing 62-60 with 14.4 seconds to go after Curry made one of two free-throw attempts, Austin took a timeout with 6.4 seconds remaining in regulation to set up the Panther offense.
Senior guard Josh Hale drove the ball inside and connected on the game-tying shot as time expired, forcing the extra session. Hale led Spring Garden with 16 points, six rebounds, five assists and two steals.
"Josh made a big play," Austin said. "He's playing strong and finishing strong around the basket, and we thought he could finish or go to the free-throw line. I was thinking foul, and I hollered at (assistant coach) Dana (Austin) and she informed me he was our best free-throw shooter tonight. I was really thinking who the best free-throw shooter was to get to the line, not as much who could make the big play. I was thinking get to the free-throw line, but he made a big play."
Panther senior center Jake Grogan picked up where Hale left off in overtime. He scored three straight buckets for the Panthers, which gave them a 68-65 lead with 2:32 left on the clock. Grogan finished with 14 points and six rebounds
However, free-throw shooting down the stretch cost the Panthers. Junior guard Will Ivey missed three of four attempts from the line in the game's final minute of overtime.
"Believe it or not, we shoot them at practice," Austin said. "We've got free-throw drills we do at practice, but we haven't had enough shots lately. We've got some key guys straight out of football, and they haven't got that. It doesn't mean they're going to hit them later, and I'm not making excuses. We should have hit them. We missed too many of them (9 of 20 for the game). We missed them at a valuable time, but that's part of the game. We're going to keep working hard at it and hope we can start making them."
Dominique Thomas and Lavonte LaCount added 10 points for Jacksonville. Dakota Doss contributed eight points, four boards and two steals. Jackson Bell finished with six points.
Logan Whorton tallied 14 points for Spring Garden, including three 3-pointers. He also had five rebounds. Ivey added 11 points and six assists. Will Westbrook also finished with 11 points.
"I'm very proud of how we fought all day long. I'm not sure this same team fights like that last year," Austin said. "We were confident. We held our heads up. We fought after bad plays. We played good after some good plays.
"That game right there is just a loss, but we're going to build something off of that. It's going to help us for the next big games down the road."