By Rubin E. Grant
The Spain Park girls basketball team’s final home game of the regular season last Friday wasn’t billed as Sarah Ashlee Barker Night, but perhaps it should have been.
In a brief ceremony before the Class 7A No. 4 Jags took on the No. 1 Hoover Bucs, their crosstown rival, Barker walked onto the court to receive two commemorative basketballs, one for surpassing 2,000 career points and one for eclipsing 1,000 career rebounds, a rare career double-double.
After the game, Barker received a bouquet of flowers and was escorted across the court by her mom, Amy Best, and her dad, Jay Barker, the former University of Alabama quarterback, as she and teammate Kamryn Corey were recognized during Senior Night festivities.
But it was the outcome of the game that provided the 5-foot-11-inch Barker with her most cherished gift of the evening: a victory against Hoover.
Barker never left the court, playing all 32 minutes, scoring 35 points, grabbing a bushel of rebounds and dishing out a few assists as the Jags (26-4) knocked off the Bucs 61-56, handing Hoover (26-2) only its second loss.
“I had never beaten Hoover,” said Barker, who had been 0-6 against the Bucs. “I can’t thank God enough that I finally did. It was all about our effort, getting on the floor and playing together as a team.”
No Jag expended more energy than Barker, a Georgia signee. She fought through leg cramps in the second half and channeled the Mamba Mentality, the late Kobe Bryant’s mentality, enforcing her will against the Bucs and at times manhandling them.
“She’s the best player in the state,” Spain Park coach Mike Chase said. “They were trying anything and everything to stop her, but she was a man against boys.”
Manhandling the Competition
Barker’s physical dominance was so overwhelming that Hoover coach Krystle Johnson could be heard telling a referee, “You can’t just let her do whatever she wants,” an obvious reference that Johnson thought Barker should have been whistled for fouls for knocking the Bucs around.
The Bucs had put a beatdown on the Jags 56-32 when the teams met Dec. 6 at Hoover, but Barker wasn’t about to let that happen again. She scored 12 points, sinking two 3-pointers, in the first quarter to stake the Jags to a 18-9 lead and had 19 points at halftime as the Jags took a 33-18 advantage.
“When we played them the first time, I wasn’t as aggressive,” Barker said. “I needed to attack more.”
Barker didn’t let up in the second half, despite being in some pain.
“She was cramping a little bit, but she played through the pain,” Chase said. “She’s the only senior we’ve got who really plays. We can’t beat that team without her.”
Twice Barker sent the Spain Park faithful into a frenzy in the second half.
Midway through the third quarter, she collected a defensive rebound, then weaved her way past Hoover defenders, finishing with a nifty Euro step to avoid a charge and a kiss off the glass for a basket that gave the Jags their biggest lead of the night, 40-22.
Spain Park’s 18-point lead dwindled to one when Hoover’s Aniya Hubbard converted an old-fashioned three-point play, pulling the Bucs within 55-54 with 56.8 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
Barker converted two free throws with 41.4 seconds remaining to put the Jags up 57-54, then she brought down the house again in a game-deciding sequence.
Hoover’s Kristen McMillan had a potential game-tying 3-point attempt from the top of the key go in and out. Hubbard grabbed the rebound and put up a shot while falling away. Barker emphatically blocked it and the Jags’ fans went wild.
Barker then was fouled and made two more free throws with 30.5 seconds remaining to give the Jags a 59-54 lead, just enough cushion for them to hang on.
Madison Adamson led Hoover with 15 points before fouling out with 1:11 remaining. Hubbard finished with 10.
When the final buzzer sounded, Barker ran over to the student section and jumped into the air for a celebratory chest bump with her twin brother Harrison Barker, the Jags’ starting quarterback on the football team last fall.
So, the crosstown rivals, winners of the past three Class 7A state championships (Hoover in 2017 and 2019; Spain Park in 2018), wound up splitting their two regular-season meetings, each winning at home.
Both teams opened play in their respective area tournaments at home this week. Hoover played Tuscaloosa County in Area 5 action Tuesday and Spain Park met Mountain Brook in an Area 6 game Wednesday.
If the Jags and Bucs meet again this season, it would be in the Class 7A championship game at the BJCC Legacy Arena, something they did in 2017 when Barker was a freshman and Hoover prevailed 51-47 in overtime.
Barker will try her best to make a championship rematch a reality, but with a different outcome.