Defense sparks Lady Cardinals

Charles A. Smith | Special to the Journal Belmont's Elisiah Jones, left, who scored 25 points on Saturday, attempts to steal the ball from Danisha Davis.

Charles A. Smith | Special to the Journal
Belmont’s Elisiah Jones, left, who scored 25 points on Saturday, attempts to steal the ball from Danisha Davis.

By Gene Phelps

Daily Journal

JACKSON – A new rivalry is brewing in Northeast Mississippi girls basketball between Belmont and Booneville.

The two teams will clash at 1 p.m. Friday in the MHSAA Class 3A State Tournament’s championship game.

Belmont reached the title game Saturday night with its convincing 72-59 victory against Hazlehurst at the Mississippi Coliseum. Booneville qualified earlier in the day with an equally impressive win, 43-32, against Crystal Springs.

“Booneville’s a great team,” Belmont coach Chris Higginbottom said. “I think the two best teams are playing for it. I have a lot of respect for Coach (Michael) Smith and his program.”

Belmont (22-10) holds a 2-1 series edge against the Lady Blue Devils this season, including last week’s 50-46 win in the North state championship game. Booneville beat Belmont 47-46 in the division semifinals and lost to the Lady Cardinals, 65-51, in the regular season.

Belmont won state championships in 2010 and 2012 under Higginbottom.

Sophomore guard Chloe Watson took advantage of Hazlehurst focusing on the Jones sisters – Elisiah (25 points) and Natasha (19) – to score 18 points, grab a team-high eight rebounds and make four steals.

“She really stepped it up,” Higginbottom said of Watson’s effort. “A lot times teams focus on my other players. They think she’s a role player. She’s more than a role player.”

Belmont’s defense created 14 turnovers in the first half as the Lady Cardinals jumped out to a 23-9 first-quarter lead – thanks to a late 15-2 run – and built a 39-23 halftime advantage.

“We were praying that we’d start off strong,” Watson said. “When we do, we play like that the whole game.”

Higginbottom agreed.

“It’s very important to us how you start a game,” he said. “I thought our defense was very effective in the first half.

“I thought we rebounded well. We wanted to contest and contain their guards. I was also proud of our offense. We executed well against the defenses they threw at us.”

Danisha Davis scored 16 points to lead Hazlehurst. The Lady Indians (13-17) connected on eight 3-pointers.

gene.phelps@journalinc.com