BELMONT – A tough schedule has paid huge dividends – a trip to the state tournament – for Belmont’s Lady Cardinals.
Chris Higginbottom’s team started the season 5-8, but a handful of those losses were against a who’s who of successful teams: Tupelo, Shannon, Red Bay, Ala., Lauderdale County, Ala., and Oneonta, Ala.
It should be noted Belmont opened the season with eight players who had not played in a varsity game.
“We lost our first three games and were 3-6 at Christmas,” Higginbottom said. “We lost to Tupelo, Red Bay, Shannon and Baldwyn, which was playing well at the time.
“Our girls decided they didn’t like the way the season was going.”
Belmont played four games in the Lauderdale (Ala.) Christmas Tournament in Florence. The Lady Cardinals beat Alabama teams Rogers and Ramsay, then lost back-to-back games to eventual state champions Lauderdale County and Oneonta.
“Playing good teams early in the season exposes your weaknesses,” Higginbottom said. “We were able to correct those things and be prepared for the postseason.”
Since January, the Lady Cardinals are 16-2, won the North Mississippi championship and qualified for the MHSAA Class 3A State Tournament.
Belmont (21-10) plays Hazlehurst (13-14) at 6:30 p.m.Saturday in the state semifinals. The Lady Cardinals have had success under Higginbottom in Jackson, having won state championships in 2010 and 2012.
“Our girls came to the point that it’s not how you start, but how you finish,” he said. “They started trusting and depending on each other. I told them they were the only ones who could do anything about it.
“We’re blessed to be where we are. It was accomplished with hard work and by playing together. These girls could have quit.”
Katelyn Nunley, a junior forward, leads the team in scoring, averaging 15 points per game. Sisters Natasha Jones, a senior, and Elisiah Jones, a junior, average 14 points apiece from their guard positions.
“I’m proud of all of my players because of their desire and determination to work hard, get better and reach their goals,” Higginbottom said.
• Who: Belmont (21-10) vs. Hazlehurst (13-14)
• What: State Semifinals
• When: 6:30 p.m., Saturday
• Where: Mississippi Coliseum, Jackson
Belmont – F Katelyn Nunley (15 ppg), G Elisiah Jones (14 ppg), G Natasha Jones (14 ppg), G Chole Watson, F Breanna Lynch, F Carly Ramsey, G Alivia Rooker.
Hazlehurst – G Natasha Arnold, G Denesha Davis, P Ladreka Adams.
NEXT: Winner plays Booneville or Crystal Springs for state championship.