By Gene Phelps
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.”
“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.