Hanging out in the gym following practice, Everette Mayes started to walk out the door before an Austin High teammate stopped him with a friendly reminder.
Or better yet, a friendly challenge.
"You can't leave," Malique Elliott said. "You haven't dunked yet."
Naturally, Mayes obliged. And his attempt to show out in front of friends failed. Yes, Mayes got above the rim, but the basketball recoiled out of the basket, instantly causing his Austin teammates to partake in a little good-natured ribbing.
For the record: Mayes can dunk a basketball. All five players in Austin's starting lineup can — and even a few who come off the bench can get above the rim. It's an athletic roster.
It's also a roster filled with interesting and entertaining personalities — and also a group that has developed a tight chemistry while exceeding expectations.
Austin's basketball program was hit hard by attrition since the end of last season. The Black Bears graduated a strong senior class, but also had a pair of talented juniors, Detrick Mostella and Brandon Roberts, transfer during the offseason. Mostella, an Oklahoma State signee, transferred to La Lumiere, a prepatory school near Gary, Ind., while Brandon Roberts, a mid-to-high level college prospect, now is averaging more than 30 points per game for West Morgan.
"There was a little bit of uncertainty with our program during the offseason, with as far as the players we had to replace," Austin coach Demond Garth. "But the guys we have here, they have come through.
“They're all pulling for one another and this is a really fun team to coach."
It's hard to disagree.
After a few stumbles in the first half of the season, Austin is finishing strong. The 10th-ranked Black Bears (15-6) have won five of their past six games and recently clinched the Class 6A, Area 16 tournament's top seed.
And entertainment with this bunch never stops, both on and off the floor.
"What we've learned is our team has to be based on a maturity act,"
Mayes said. "We like to cut up and have fun, but when we step on the floor, it's strictly business."
A collection of new and old players fill out the roster. Elliott and Mayes were key pieces of an Austin team that reached the Northwest Regional final a year ago, but now they've been ushered into the spotlight — a place where both are learning to shine.
Elliott has emerged as one of the area's most entertaining players.
The 6-fot-3 forward consistently plays above the rim, dunking on lob passes, putbacks or any other way he can get the ball in his hands. He is averaging about 14 points and 10 rebounds per game.
Elliott brings the energy — and showmanship — while Mayes, a senior point guard who averages 10 points per game, is the salty, level-headed leader. Put that combination on the floor with a pair of budding stars in sophomores Camron Reedus and Josh Pearson, along with an athletic supporting cast, and Garth once again has found the perfect mish-mash for success.
"Before the season started, we heard people say how we weren't going to be as good because of the players we lost," Mayes said. "But now that we're getting everything together, people are climbing back on the bandwagon, and hopefully they'll be able to ride all the way to Wallace State (for the Northwest Regional) and to Birmingham (for the state tournament)."
Unlike last season, recruiting sites like Rivals.com don't have stars beside any Austin players' names, but the Black Bears have several stars on the floor.
Egos are checked at the lockerroom door. This season, team basketball is the mantra.
The results tell the story. Since late November, seven different players have led Austin in scoring, and the Black Bears have five averaging about 10 points per game.
Two of those are Austin's youngest starters.
"Those young guys, they can be great," Mayes said. "I think they can be some of the best to play here. That's how much confidence we have in those guys."
High praise. And based on performance, it's warranted. Reedus is averaging 9.5 points per game, while Pearson averages nine.
But even though the transition appeared easy, Reedus said it wasn't.
"There was a whole lot we had to learn in a hurry," Reedus said. "The mental aspect. The speed of the game. Those are things you have to get used to. Luckily we had some good players to lean on while we got used to the pressure."
Obviously, Austin's young players adapted and last season's supporting cast is learning to thrive in leading roles.
And wins? They're piling up. Austin has beaten some of the top teams in north Alabama in recent weeks, including Sparkman, Hazel Green and Tanner.
But the resume isn't what makes the players smile. The Black Bears are proud of the path they traveled.
"This season has been fun because it's not about pure talent," Elliott said. "We started with a lot of inexperienced players, and it was harder than last year because of that. But we worked through all of that, put our faith into what our coaches were saying, and we've learned that we can win by playing our roles."
A statement that made Garth nod his head in approval.
"As a coach, this season has been gratifying because of what we've overcome," he said. "This team is about roles, and if the guys enjoy their roles and do their jobs the right way, then that makes us better. Right now, we've found the right mix. Watching the guys grow into that type of team has been enjoyable to watch."
Contact Justin Graves at 256-340-2460 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A look at the Black Bears
Ranked No. 10 in Class 6A
Won regular season Area 16 title
Seven different players led team in scoring this season
Five players averaging at or near 10 points per game: Malique Elliott 14, Everette Mayes 10, Camron Reedus 9.5, Josh Pearson 9, Troy Harris 8.5.
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