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THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 22, 2007
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MARK EDWARDS

They're better than 18-13

HANCEVILLE — With a sheet of game statistics in hand Wednesday afternoon, Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa coach Scott Suttles had a few moments to absorb his team's Northwest Regional loss to Austin.

Austin 74, Hillcrest 54.

And, yes, the score really did indicate what kind of game it was. It wasn't one of those it-was-closer-than-the-score games.

One glance at Suttles' shell-shocked look revealed that.

After that, who would've thought that Austin's record stands at a pedestrian 18-13? Who would've thought this was the same team that went 17 days in January without winning a game? And after watching the Black Bears methodically take apart Hillcrest, who would've thought that the losing team had won a school record-tying 27 games this season?

"I'll tell you this much — they're better than any 18-13 team I've ever seen," Suttles said.

For whatever reason, that's usually the case when Austin reaches this point in the season.

If the Black Bears simply can get past the area tournament and qualify for the state's postseason tournament, you should forget the record.

They've reached the regional finals three straight times and four of the past six years. They've won twice in that span and will go after a third Final Four trip Saturday when they face Thompson.

Even mighty Sparkman, which often is Austin's postseason nemesis, can't match that record of recent success.

It's nothing new, either, because Austin played like this back when Joe Jones coached the Black Bears. And when Bob Harpe followed him. And when Stuart Allen followed Harpe. And now with Demond Garth following Allen.

So why does Austin play so well when it counts the most?

Maybe it helps that Austin always seems to have an advantage with the crowd. More students from Austin seem to travel to regionals than do students from other schools.

In some cases, the size of some schools' crowds looks downright pathetic compared to Austin's — and we're not talking about only small schools. Austin's crowd often dwarfs those of large schools.

Austin sends students home with permission slips for a parent to sign, and then the student must bring the slip to the game and have an assistant principal sign it. Otherwise, that student is counted as absent from school.

Clearly, a lot of students are taking the offer because the stands behind the Austin basket are filled to the top of Wallace State-Hanceville's arena. Other Class 6A schools did well to fill those stands halfway to the top.

Also, maybe Austin has an easier time adjusting to the officiating. It looks like the officials at regionals call games about the same way as they do in Decatur-area games.

It always seems that teams that play ultra-physical like Sparkman and Thompson did during their semifinal game Wednesday are coming from areas where officials let them play as rough as they would like. Maybe those teams have to make a bigger adjustment to regional officiating, which doesn't seem to let teams get away with a whole lot.

Certainly, that's a flawed theory, but it's food for thought.

Also, maybe the reason is much more simple: Austin usually has a decent level of talent, and the school has always had a good head coach who manages postseason well. That's a sound recipe for success.

Maybe Garth simply is the latest in the line of Austin coaches who always zero in on what works during the most important part of the season. And with that in mind, here's some sound advice for Thompson, which has a 26-5 record after beating Sparkman:

Don't tell your players about Austin's record. Don't let them read a newspaper. Lie to them and say that Austin has won 30 games this year. Trust me, the Black Bears will play like it Saturday.

Mark Edwards Mark Edwards
DAILY Sports Editor

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