By David Wheeler/NEMS Daily Journal
FULTON – During the last week of high school basketball’s regular season, coaches with designs on advancing in the playoffs are looking for a good test.
Such was the case Friday as the Belmont Lady Cardinals and the Itawamba AHS Lady Indians tried to sharpen up for next week’s division tournaments.
The Lady Cardinals put their best foot forward in the closing minutes of this contest, making seven free throws down the stretch to hold off the Lady Indians 44-39.
“This was certainly a game to get us ready for the division tournament,” Belmont coach Chris Higginbottom said. “This gives us a feel on where we stand, and I feel here at the end, we’ve been tested.”
In this matchup of Class 3A and 4A, it was a good test all around as the contest was ultra close until the closing moments.
Itawamba (17-7) trailed by three points going into the fourth quarter, then pulled ahead with 4 minutes, 26 seconds to play on a consecutive baskets by Rebecca Cleveland at 36-35. The contest was tied at 37-37 with 3:03 remaining following a free throw by Itawamba’s Kim Mallory, but that is when Belmont (22-4) tightened up its defense.
The Lady Cardinals kept the Lady Indians from scoring again until the final few ticks of the scoreboard, and just two free throws at that. Meanwhile, Belmont hit 16-of-19 free throws for the game, seven of those free shots down the stretch to ice the well-earned victory.
“Itawamba is a great team, and they were very patient on offense,” Higginbottom said. “That took us out of our rhythm, being patient is not our style.
“Defensively, we were able to jump to the ball better in the second half, and started using our weak-side and back-side help.”
Angelia Allen scored 13 points to lead Belmont. Laken McKnatt was good for 12 to lead Itawamba, which was playing without guard Abby McDonald.
“Belmont does like to run, and we wanted to slow the ball down,” Itawamba coach Amanda Morrow said. “I think we are better on offense when we are patient, and this did help us prepare for next week.”
The game was tight throughout, with Itawamba holding a one-point lead after the first quarter, and the score tied at 20-20 at the half. The Lady Indians did move to a 30-24 lead in the third period following a Mallory basket, only to see Belmont recover and with a pair of Leslie Robinson baskets and lead 33-30 entering the final quarter.
– (B) Belmont 69, Itawamba AHS 63: The Indians held a slim 50-49 advantage entering the final quarter, but midway through the period, Belmont staked its claim to the lead.
Alex Sparks paced Belmont with 27, and Maikhail Miller led IAHS with 16.