When Kelley Austria was in the third grade, she began to seriously pursue basketball. This meant extended skill sessions with her dad, Mike, who taught her the fundamentals of the game. A ball bouncing steadily upon pavement, shots hoisted upon the hoop in the driveway of their Beavercreek, Ohio home. But Mike’s lessons extended beyond offense.
“He was really big on being in the right spot on defense, sliding and all that,” Austria says over the phone on a Wednesday morning in August. It took time, but Austria gradually began to enjoy this side of basketball. “It’s hard to describe, but getting a steal is almost as fun as scoring,” she says. “Just anticipating where the offensive player will go, or pass to, is fun.”
Austria was an offensive stalwart at Carroll High, in Dayton, but it was her attention to detail on D that began to set her apart. Her 529 steals were the fifth-highest total in Ohio prep history. As a senior, she averaged 7.3 steals — per game. This aptitude was something that Jim Jabir, the head coach at Dayton, noted as he began recruiting her.
Well, sort of. “When I went to see Kelley the first time, I wasn’t that impressed,” says Jabir. “Her athleticism doesn’t jump out at you. But you have to watch her for awhile to appreciate her. She’s so long, so smart, and she anticipates so well. She’s a lot quicker than she looks. When you get to know what she’s about, you see how great she is.”
Jabir didn’t have a hard sell when it came to Austria. She’d always had her heart set on playing close to home. Since joining the Flyers fam, the 6–0 senior guard has been an integral component of two 28-win teams. Those seasons (frosh and junior) sandwiched an injury-shortened sophomore campaign, in which Austria tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee during a conference game against UMass.
Before she’d played her first game for Dayton, her new teammates raved about her defensive aptitude. Now, she’s become the Flyers’ best perimeter defender; to the point where, when Dayton faced UConn in the Elite Eight this past spring, Jabir had her start on Huskies point guard Moriah Jefferson, the Nancy Lieberman Award winner. When Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis started to get going during the first half, Jaber switched Austria onto her. Once she’d put out the KML fireworks, it was back to Jefferson.
Guarding two national All-Americans; on offense, shifting seamlessly between the wing and running point. As Austria performed the latter duties, late in the first half against UConn, she drove right at the National Player of the Year and scored. It was this hard take, and nifty finish, over Breanna Stewart that gave Dayton the 44–43 lead they carried into halftime.
It was a manifestation of what Jabir and his staff have worked on with Austria. Becoming more confident, being aggressive on offense. “That’s never really been natural for me, but the coaches are always encouraging me,” says Austria. “Usually, what I get yelled at for is not shooting enough. So, I’ve gotten better at doing that.”
Says Jabir, “You could see steady progress with Kelley; she became more assertive.”
Take those 17 points she poured in against Kentucky in the tournament’s second round, punctuated by four free throws in the final 21 seconds that iced the 99–94 upset. Or the 11 points (and three assists) in the first half against UConn. A marker of her comprehensive approach: against Kentucky, the four rebounds, three assists and three blocks, she becomes, as Jabir puts it (nicely), “a monster.” In the first three games of the tournament, she averaged 38 minutes per game.
“She’s a very quiet dominating player,” says Jabir. “She does so many things that are so important to what we do. In a lot of ways, she was our MVP last year.”
Jabir joked that as the tournament wore on, the wins coming in such quick succession, he simply got out of the way. His players were so dialed in, brimming with that special sort of excitement that becomes embedded the moment you’ve woken up each morning. Ready to take the next step in their adventure. “We played loose, we played fearlessly, we played together,” he says. “We played the game it should be played, and it was a beautiful thing to watch.”
As Dayton moved on to each successive round, Jabir kept fielding a similar question: what factors have led to this success? He reflected upon it, and landed upon this conclusion: you have to be good at what you do best. “When an opportunity comes, you have to take full advantage,” says Jabir. “Everything that came together had a lot to do with that.”
It’s Andrea Hoover and Ally Malott, last season’s star seniors, picking UD over a host of high-major offers. They wanted to build something. They wanted to take on, and take down, the titans of the game. That’s a special kind of mindset, and it can propel a program into a new level of standing.
Now, Dayton wants to build upon last season’s success. They want to become a mainstay in the latter weekends of the NCAA tournament. Despite the losses of Hoover and Malott, who became the program’s first WNBA draft picks this past April, the next Dayton team will not be short on talent. Sophomore point guard Jenna Burdette started 32 games in ‘14–15; in the UConn game, she went toe to toe with Moriah Jefferson. Austria will be one of three seniors, expected to lead.
“The running joke with Kelley is that she didn’t speak until her junior year,” says Jabir. “She’s never going to be vocal, it’s just not who she is, and I’m OK with that, as long as she acts like a leader, and is an example of what our program is about. We have a marked way of doing what we do. We have a system that really works, and a culture in place. It’s up to Kelley and the other seniors to make sure the underclassmen are on board.”
Austria watched Hoover and Malott closely, the way they led the team both on and off the court. “I learned from them to always work your hardest,” says Austria.
Jabir has talked a lot with the new seniors: If we’re going to be really good, then you have to become selfless. That was what made Hoover and Malott so special. They handled the load, they were the lightning rods — for media and opposing defenses.
Now, Austria, Amber Deane, and Jodie Cornelie-Sigmundova must become leaders and caretakers. Captains. “It’s a very different responsibility from what they’ve had,” says Jabir. “How they handle that will be critical.”
Austria is ready to take on that challenge. It all boils down to the message Jabir delivered to his team, before they took on UConn at the Times Union Center in Albany. Let’s go kick some ass, and have fun.
Here’s to more of the same in ‘15–16.