A 'rivalry' homecoming: Sarah Ashlee Barker continues family tradition against Auburn

Sarah Ashlee Barker, Georgia's freshman bench spark, had one of her season-best performances in front of a hometown crowd.

Georgia freshman guard Sarah Ashlee Barker (3) bumps elbows with head coach Joni Taylor after hitting a buzzer-beating shot in the 76-44 win over Auburn. (Courtesy of Shanna Lockwood — Auburn Athletics)

AUBURN, Ala. (virtually) — In the early 1990s, Auburn University got its first introduction to a Barker. It didn’t prove to be too welcoming for the Tigers.

Former Alabama quarterback Jay Barker beat Auburn three times on the gridiron from 1991-94. The man who wore No. 7 in Crimson crushed the souls of the Tiger faithful in the sport’s richest intrastate rivalry.

Barker’s athletic genes were passed on. He has four children. Three of them have found a place in today’s era of college athletics. Their toughness grew from the days of playing backyard football on the concrete (it didn’t matter whether you were the oldest brother or the youngest sister) and plenty of pick-up basketball games to go along with it. The younger Barker generation — Andrew, Braxton and the twins Sarah Ashlee and Harrison — quickly became competitive and wrote their own scripts in sports that were based on childhood experiences.

As one might guess, the Barkers grew up yelling “Roll Tide” and probably learned the history of their father’s football days. Alabama stayed the beloved school as the Barker children grew up in the suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama. That passionate connection to the team in Tuscaloosa meant something specific — nobody liked Auburn.

Over a quarter-century has passed since someone within the Barker bloodlines defeated Auburn. Sarah Ashlee Barker, the youngest of the siblings (along with her twin brother Harrison, of course, who is a quarterback at University of Alabama — Birmingham), got the chance to be the next on Sunday afternoon at Auburn Arena.

She wore a different shade of red and continued the family tradition on the hardwood. Barker wanted to blaze her own path, join Georgia and play for head coach Joni Taylor.

Georgia won out in Barker’s recruitment over the two in-state schools, Auburn and Alabama, for the prolific guard. A former AL.com Player of the Year, ASWA Miss Basketball and state champion was highly sought-after as a prospect.

“Auburn did a really good job of recruiting her, as did Alabama,” Taylor said. “It made for a battle and a fight.”

Once she arrived on campus, it didn’t change anything in terms of the mission, however. Barker still knew the value of beating Auburn. She walked into Auburn Arena for the first time as a Division I athlete. The feeling had to be surreal.

“It feels like more of a rivalry to me,” Barker said after Georgia collected its first SEC win of the season. “I've grown up an Alabama fan, so Auburn has always been my rival.”

Georgia (9-1) beat Auburn 76-44 on Sunday afternoon to bounce back from a conference-opening loss to Mississippi State last Thursday. Barker emerged as one of the Lady Bulldogs’ leading contributors in the victory with seven points, four rebounds, two assists and a steal. Her basketball roots are planted 100 miles away within the confines of Spain Park High School, but a two-hour drive without her supporters having to cross state lines made for a homecoming.

Auburn didn’t allow many through its arena’s doors due to the Covid-19 pandemic. A game atmosphere is nearly non-existent in the 2020-21 season. But you could find the Barker clan. They were going to take the chance to see No. 3 play.

Barker has a big following, too, as a prep basketball star and former Gatorade Player of the Year in Alabama. A lot of them made the trip. Barker knew of family members in attendance, former teammates, her high school coach Mike Chase and even “little girls who look up to me,” she said.

“There were at least about 20 here,” Barker said. “I don’t know how many. A lot of people I have become close with came to watch me. It was a lot of fun to be home … kind of.”

Auburn fans, however, might not be too fond of the name Barker if they remember the connection. She didn’t take too long to remind them. Barker scored five points in a matter of 39 seconds and did it in dramatic fashion, too.

The sequence began with picture-perfect execution as Barker ran in transition. She beat the rest of her Lady Bulldog teammates down the floor. Forward Malury Bates found Barker streaking in open space for a layup.

A fireworks finale came on the following possession. The final seconds ticked off of the clock in the first quarter. Barker stood on the perimeter. She waved her hands through the air without a defender in sight. Fellow guard Chloe Chapman found Barker on a dart across the paint. The ball left her hands. The buzzer sounded.

Splash. Barker eyed it down with some swagger.

“It was one of those things where I let it go,” Barker said. “I didn't think about it. I just let it fly.”

Barker walked toward the bench. She bumped elbows with her head coach. Barker’s facial expression remained stoic for a second, but the freshman couldn’t keep excitement in for too long.

“I looked at Joni and started smiling and laughing,” Barker said.

Barker said she shook off some shooting woes in the win over Auburn. She had a history of being a volume scorer at Spain Park. Nobody could hardly stop her from dropping around 30 points each night.

The college game has presented new challenges, and Barker’s field goal percentage sat at 35% entering Sunday’s game. But the scoring ability is why Georgia pursued Barker, and it has noticed progression and the potential within the freshman.

“She's someone who takes a lot of shots and makes a lot of shots,” Taylor said. “You still haven't seen everything she's capable of. Every shot she takes, I think it's going in. She's really talented.”

Those on hand inside Auburn Arena were the ones who helped mold Barker as a basketball player and as a 19-year-old student-athlete who is trying to navigate the challenges of college life. They got an in-person perspective of how Barker’s game has translated to the next level.

Taylor has repeated ad nauseam the influence Barker possesses away from the scoring column. There’s a toughness and ability to be impactful in ways beyond the stat sheet that makes Barker a tough assignment to guard. She rebounds. She defends, well, actually suffocates opposing guards. She collects steals and runs in transition to dictate Georgia’s pace.

Barker has become one of Georgia’s most-integral bench pieces to its 9-1 start. Forget the freshman classification, the Lady Bulldogs trust Barker to play heavy minutes and be on the floor late in games.

Before one of Barker’s first games at Georgia, Chase sent her a text. They’ve built a close player-coach relationship over the years, and the Spain Park head coach knows Barker’s play style and work ethic better than most. He wrote: “Make sure you have a high motor. Play as hard as you can when you're on the floor. Be coachable as heck, but don't put as much pressure on yourself. You're gonna be great.”

Barker, to be fair, is quite the critic on her own game. She walks away wanting more, and can sometimes let a mistake linger. From the outside, however, it has become evident through only nine games that Barker has filled each of Chase’s encouraging requests.

She’s won SEC Freshman of the Week. She posted a double-double with 12 rebounds in a win over Georgia State. She added a 12-point performance against Appalachian State. Five steals were recorded by Barker in that win over the Mountaineers, too.

Barker is known as the scorer. But she has become the do-it-all contributor in a Georgia uniform. Those who knew her game could’ve predicted it, and it’s made for an ideal season for a young role player who has potential to become a lead guard.

“You're out there with a senior-laden team, and the points are a bonus,” Chase said. “They want to see you flying all over the place. As she progresses, there'll be a lot more on her plate. Right now, if you defend your tail off and dive on the floor for loose balls, that's what keeps you in the game.”

On Sunday, all of Barker’s progressions came to play. She had the scoring dramatics and helped Georgia to a 32-point win in ways that might be unnoticed.

A homecoming ended with sweet defeat of a rival for Barker. She picked up where her father left off.

Barker made her mark how she knows best, too — making buckets.

“All shooters shoot,” Barker said. “No matter what.”