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Ashlee Austin discusses her journey from bench to brilliance

Photo courtesy Rice Athletics

By Cadan Hanson     1/24/23 10:09pm

If you watched any Rice women’s basketball games in the past two years, you’ve seen No. 22 with pink highlights hitting shots and making plays. But if you saw Ashlee Austin as a freshman, you would be shocked to see the transformation that the forward from Johns Creek, Georgia has gone through: from the last seat on the bench to the face of Rice women’s basketball.

“The transition from being the literal last person on the bench, to the player you are looking for at the end of the game, when there’s 10 seconds left is [my story],” Austin said. “I love that transition and I hope that it can be an inspiration for people to see that it takes a certain amount of work to earn it.”

Before she stepped foot on South Main, Austin’s basketball career started on the blacktop courts in her neighborhood, a nostalgic site for any basketball junkie. Austin said that those days spent at the courts were what grew her confidence and love for the game.

“Playing pickup on the blacktop with the guys everyday was the beginning of my passion for the game,” Austin said.  “I’m a very competitive person and to be underestimated by a lot of the guys was awesome. They were like ‘oh this little girl, whatever’ but when I’d make a shot on them or back them down in the post, that would shock them. I’d just try to prove them wrong and that I can play too.”

As Austin’s game continued to develop, college scouts took notice. Most of Austin’s college offers came from schools close to her hometown, including her first offer, the University of Mississippi. But according to Austin, it was Rice’s program culture and academic prestige that helped them ward off big-name suitors like Ole Miss.

“Even though they started recruiting me late, [Rice] pushed hard,” Austin said. “I would see all five coaches on the baseline at my games and it was awesome. Hearing about how it’s ‘40 years not four years’ and the prestige of the degree and how good the team was, it was just something I couldn’t pass up.”

However, Austin’s first two seasons were anything but perfect. Instead of seeing similar success to her highschool career, she found herself at the end of the bench. Although she did not see the court, Austin was part of the 2019-2020 team that won the “COVID” C-USA Championship after the tournament was canceled mid-national anthem of the championship game. Despite the team’s success, Austin said it was difficult to adjust to being a role-player in her first two seasons.

“I didn’t play a lot my first two years,” Austin said. “As a freshman you get a few chances and if you blow it, you blow it and you get moved to the end of the bench and you never take your warmup off. It was fun because we were winning but being a role player was hard even if you realize that this is what is best for the team. For me it was a very humbling experience.”

However, after the end of her sophomore year, Lindsay Edmonds replaced Tina Langley as the head coach of the Owls. According to Austin, this fresh start sparked her to elevate her game and claim a new role. 

“The coaching change was really an inspiration to take my work ethic to a whole nother level,” Austin said. “I wanted to be great again and I knew there was a certain equation of work that it takes to get there. All the reps I did that summer, getting up at 5 a.m. and shooting three times a day started to pay off. It was really fun to buy into that process.“

On top of being known as a versatile stretch big who can back down bigger opponents in the post and space the court by hitting threes, Austin is known for her fiery attitude on the court. According to Austin, even though she has dialed down her chirping this year, her competitive side is always there.

“In [Amateur Athletic Union], my coach would call me ‘Angry Eyes Austin’ because I had this fire in my eyes, almost like [I’m saying] ‘I hate you’,” Austin said. “I really love my competitive side because it keeps the game fun. I enjoy trash talking people in games. Last year at times, I was really, really mean. This year I’ve calmed down a lot, but I still enjoy talking.”

Over the years, Austin’s resume has grown, now including a second-team all-conference honor as she looks to lead the Owls to a conference championship in her final year. However, despite her recent success, Austin remembers where she came from and enjoys being a mentor to her younger teammates, who may be facing the same situation she faced four years ago. 

“I love being an example and like a servant leader … and I’m trying to do that as best as possible,” Austin said. “Now I have a larger role, I’m checking in on girls who didn’t get big minutes or didn’t get to take their warmup off and just giving them a big hug and helping them because I know the equation that it takes to get to where I am.”

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