By Gene Phelps/NEMS Daily Journal
BELMONT – At first, nobody on the Belmont girls basketball team said a word when coach Chris Higginbottom started playing a DVD of Raymond’s 4A state tournament win against New Albany.
Then Raymond’s 6-foot-3, 200-pound-plus post player, Janairrika Bland, came into the picture.
“Oh, my goodness,” said one of the Lady Cardinals.
Oh, my goodness is right. Bland, a Southern Mississippi signee, can be a scoring and rebounding nightmare for an opponent. Through last week’s state championship win against New Albany, she’s averaging 16.3 points and 10.5 rebounds per game.
Class 3A state champion Belmont (33-1) plays 4A winner Raymond (30-1) at 7 p.m. today in the opening round of the MHSAA Grand Slam at the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson.
The winner plays 5A champ Wayne County in Friday’s 7 p.m. semifinals.
Anna Brooke Page, Belmont’s star inside player, will have the assignment, at times, of guarding Bland.
“I know she’s big, and I know she’s left-handed,” said the 5-foot-11, 140-pound Page. “I’m going to play in front of her and beat her up and down the court. We’ll probably take it to her and try to get her in foul trouble.”
Bland will not be Belmont’s only headache. The Lady Rangers also have point guard Valencia McFarland, an Ole Miss signee, leading their attack on offense and defense.
Mallory Torrence will get a shot at guarding Raymond’s star.
“She’s really quick,” Torrence said. “We’re going to have to help each other.”
Zoe Hammock, the Lady Cardinals’ perimeter scoring threat, said the key to stopping Raymond and McFarland is to disrupt the fast break.
“If you keep them from fast-breaking, they won’t score as much,” she said.
Higginbottom called Bland and McFarland “a good one-two punch.”
He added, “McFarland’s the quickest we’ve seen and reads the floor well. Bland’s one of the best post players we’ve seen. Size-wise, she’s the biggest we’ve seen.”
Higginbottom said his team looks forward to the challenge of playing Raymond, a team regarded by some as the state’s best, regardless of class.
“My girls are competitors,” he said. “They’ll only have one thing on their minds when they step on that floor: to win.”
Contact Gene Phelps at 678-1593 or firstname.lastname@example.org.