Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Saunders, Austin Leading Hilliard; Flashes' 1-2 Punch Takes 16-Game Win Streak vs. Newberry

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Saunders, Austin Leading Hilliard; Flashes' 1-2 Punch Takes 16-Game Win Streak vs. Newberry

Article excerpt

Byline: Justin Barney

Bria Saunders is feeling her age these days.

Not long ago, Saunders was the up-and-coming girls basketball star at Hilliard; now, she's the veteran doling out pointers to everyone else.

The Flashes' junior has been starting since the midway point of her seventh-grade season and can certainly relate to how teammate Kasha Austin, an eighth-grade power forward for 25-2 Hilliard, feels now.

"It was like kind of nerve-racking being younger and having to be a leader for everybody else," said Saunders, a 5-5 guard who is beginning to draw college interest from a handful of Division I programs. "You have to learn a lot when you're young. I think [Austin] is picking up a lot of that."

Behind Saunders, one of the area's best-kept basketball secrets, and Austin, the Flashes are a final four program for the first time since 1995. They'll face Newberry (26-2) today at 10 a.m. in the Class A state semifinals with a chance to reach their first title game since 1988.

Hilliard coach Tara Franklin, who was a sophomore on that state runner-up team, said this year's team has been nothing short of sensational.

The Flashes went from a 12-win squad that missed the state playoffs last year to a wrecking ball this season. Hilliard beat playoff teams Englewood, Bishop Kenny and Yulee handily during the regular season, and hasn't had a game closer than 11 points during its current 16-game winning streak.

Saunders and Austin are at the front of that charge, combining to average 36 of Hilliard's 62.1 points each game. Saunders said that the improvement hasn't just been about offense, even though the Flashes' rash of blowout wins suggests otherwise.

"Our defense is way better than last year, we worked so hard on it all season," Saunders said. "What the team has done, everybody has improved so much, everybody contributes, including the bench."

When a team tries to stack up on Saunders, she's content dishing the ball to Austin in the paint. On top of her 24 PPG scoring average, the best among the area's remaining state semifinal teams (Bartram Trail and Ribault are the others), Saunders also averages a team-leading 6. …

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