A homecoming for Sarah Ashlee Barker that proved the freshman's growth

Georgia freshman Sarah Ashlee Barker, with Alabama bloodlines, made her debut at Coleman Coliseum in the opposing uniform.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (virtually) — Everyone who knew of Sarah Ashlee Barker between the 57-mile stretch of I-20 from Birmingham to Tuscaloosa expected the freshman to play basketball in the crimson and white colors that her family bled.

Her brother, Braxton, does so now on the Alabama football team. Her dad, Jay, has his name etched in Crimson Tide program lore as one of the program’s well-known quarterbacks. Barker had Alabama in her final schools, and the thought of continuing the family tradition of starring along the infamous path of Paul W. Bryant Drive persisted.

She opted to blaze her own path and continue the Barker tradition in a brighter shade of red at Georgia. On Thursday night, her first homecoming to Tuscaloosa — likely a date circled on Barker’s calendar for quite some time — came to be.

Barker walked into Coleman Coliseum for her team’s shootaround on Thursday morning and some smiles set in. More than 30 people, from her old teammates and coaches from high school to a group of middle school girls who idolized Barker, were going to be in attendance and have their eyes fixated on No. 3.

“There's no feeling like playing in front of your family,” Barker said. “It's amazing.”

Everyone else, though, might’ve had the awkward experience of seeing the name “Barker” on the back of another uniform.

“I was a bit nervous. I'm not going to lie,” Barker said. “For sure, coming here, I wanted to win more.”

Georgia didn’t need to have a conversation with the freshman on honing in emotion. Barker has shown maturity through her first season in the SEC, and has qualities that make her seem older than a typical first-year player. It was a homecoming for many of the Lady Bulldogs, in fact: head coach Joni Taylor formerly played at Alabama and assistant coach Robert Mosley was an Alabama assistant and coached high school basketball in the Birmingham area.

Nonetheless, Barker knew the magnitude of the moment. She walked into the arena and took in the emotions with a simple statement of “Here we go.” It wouldn’t be a return to Tuscaloosa, either, without some heckling from faithful Crimson Tide fans. One of them yelled “Barker! Get outta there!” in reference to playing at Georgia. Barker chuckled at the interaction.

“I felt a bit of an underdog or traitor type of thing,” Barker said. “It was pretty cool.”

The anticipation and theatrics of a homecoming lasted for a matter of minutes. Georgia, after consecutive losses to LSU and Texas A&M, needed a win and depended on Barker to get it. Taylor put in her go-to substitute freshman less than six minutes into regulation. Forty-eight seconds later, Barker flew towards the basket on a Gabby Connally steal and flipped it into points on an easy layup.

As you might imagine, Barker’s plays were the only time Coleman Coliseum got loud for the visiting team.

Barker finished with six points, above her average of 4.1 points per game in SEC play entering Thursday’s game. Her output might seem insubstantial as Georgia (14-4, 6-4 SEC) beat Alabama 83-76 in overtime, but Barker logged a career-high 31 minutes. She contributed in ways beyond the final stat line and proved her growth through the trials of navigating a freshman season in a tough league.

Georgia put Barker at the “4” position (also referred to as power forward) as Taylor opted to play a bulk of the Alabama game with a four-guard lineup. Barker has played a majority of her time at the two-guard or point guard positions, but the 6-foot frame and abundant athleticism allowed for Georgia to give the responsibility.

Taylor felt comfortable with allowing Barker and senior Maya Caldwell to make that switch. Caldwell had experience doing so, but Barker emerged as an option after nailing down most of the offensive sets in the backcourt. Barker, after entering as the first substitution, started hot. It allowed Georgia to play Caldwell (who had the second-half spark with 11 points at the “3” position) and Barker at the same time.

“She did well and we stuck with it,” Taylor said of Barker. “I'm proud of her resilience and toughness.”

Barker contributed for Georgia in a number of ways. She did it with the aforementioned layup on the fast break. She drew two fouls. Barker found her teammates — once on a nifty pass to center Jenna Staiti. Barker’s two steals led to Lady Bulldog points on each possession.

The production came while drawing the assignment of defending Alabama star forward Jasmine Walker. Despite a three-inch height disadvantage, Barker held Walker to nine points on 3-for-7 shooting prior to the intermission.

“She's a go-getter,” senior guard Que Morrison said, who willed Georgia to victory with a career-high 25 points. “I see a lot of myself in her. I love that.”

Georgia saw Barker’s influence beyond the scoring column, which led to a plus-minus of +9. She also played 69% of the game’s minutes against the Crimson Tide. Most of Barker’s influence came in the first half, but the freshman executed in the smaller facets to where Georgia trusted her to play most of the fourth quarter and overtime minutes.

Barker found her groove as the defensive hound and energy bug that Georgia used to fuel its hot start to the 2020-21 season, despite facing some challenges against SEC competition.

“She has an impressive passion for the game and a great level of competitiveness,” Georgia associate head coach Karen Lange said, who works directly with Barker as the guards coach. “She came to us playing so hard, and she makes big plays that go unnoticed.”

Barker held herself to a high standard before arriving at Georgia. She signed with the program while leading her way as the face of Alabama high school basketball. She wore Spain Park’s No. 10 baby blue uniform and showed what she could bring to Georgia. She threw up nearly 30 points a night while wowing her former head coach Mike Chase, and Barker showed glimpses of it early on as a Lady Bulldog freshman.

She possessed a persistence to improve, so Barker would get upset during non-conference play with a final stat line of a few points and rebounds. But, despite Georgia having four senior starters and Barker not having to save the day as she was long-accustomed to, she still showed glimpses. She turned heads with a double-double (10 points and 12 rebounds) against Georgia State. She earned trust by playing the full overtime period against Georgia Tech and the entire fourth quarter as Georgia surged to beat Oklahoma.

Once SEC play began, Barker hasn’t quite produced to the same consistency. She had her strong performance at Auburn, which included a buzzer-beating 3-point shot. Eleven points against Ole Miss on a perfect afternoon from the perimeter earned Barker her second SEC Freshman of the Week honor. Otherwise, it has been about trying to find a niche for Barker against heightened competition.

Barker logged only single-digit minutes in three games — Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M — in which Taylor deemed as coach’s decisions with no other issues. She combined for two points in those three games. Admittedly, Barker lost her rhythm and spark at times over conference play, but it returned against the Crimson Tide.

Barker started to look like Barker again, with the potential to continually develop.

“Each game, I'm finding myself. This conference is literally unbelievable,” Barker said. “Especially against South Carolina and Texas A&M, I find myself thinking too much and not playing basketball. I’m trying to learn and not hesitate. The rest will take care of itself.”

Georgia guard Sarah Ashlee Barker (3) during a game against Ole Miss at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Ga., on Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021. (Photo by Chamberlain Smith)

Coincidentally (or maybe not), Barker’s resurgent moment came an hour’s drive from where the hoop dreams were founded. And in the arena she nearly played in more than once per season.

The state of Alabama is where Barker found her passions for the sport. It’s where she hoisted numerous state championship trophies. It’s where she became a four-star prospect with the option to sign with a plethora of Power Five programs. Every person who watched or played with Barker at Spain Park would give the same glowing reviews, because everyone in Alabama has seen Barker as dominant.

(Trust me. I’ve talked with a number of different folks who knew Barker. Their remarks are quite similar).

Those 30 Barker supporters in the stands saw what they did for years prior to her putting on the Georgia uniform. They saw the competitiveness that led to 2019-20 Gatorade Player of the Year honors. The work ethic leading to 2,000 points at Spain Park included getting into the school gymnasium late at night to get a few shots up.

Barker did everything possible to succeed while at the prep level, which explains her glimpses of prosperity at Georgia. She wanted to be the best. Her coaches once ran a one-mile run in practice, and her teammate Claire Holt wanted to see who could win between the two of them. The neck-and-neck battle resulted in both players running a mile in less than six minutes, a goal that wouldn’t have been met without the winning aspirations.

Those who saw Barker do it at the Division I level probably weren’t surprised. They’ve seen it before.

“I would've been surprised if she didn't have this instant impact. She has such a good feel for the game,” said Holt, who is now a sophomore on Richmond’s women’s basketball team. “It was so easy for her in high school, so I knew it would translate well.”

On Thursday night, Barker got to show it in front of those who know her best. She walked out of Coleman Coliseum with bragging rights and a victory on the other side.

Alabama sits deep in Barker’s heart. But her freshman journey continues while representing a program that felt like her home.

“I love Alabama. (Head coach Kristy) Curry is an amazing coach. Amazing woman,” Barker said. “I have all of the respect in the world for the University of Alabama. But I trust coach Joni. My heart is Georgia and this is where I want to be.”