Falling just short of the Sweet 16, Belmont’s Big Dance has come to an end and the queens of the castle will regroup.
Despite losing a hard-fought lead over the University of Tennessee in their final seconds on the Lady Vols’ home court, the Bruins’ season has been filled with big wins, immense growth and leaves the team looking toward a bigger and brighter future.
In the 2021-22 season, the team built on the previous year and proved it can play — and win — against the best of the best.
Belmont’s women’s basketball program earned its fifth regular-season win in the past six years of Ohio Valley Conference play, raising the trophy at the homecoming game versus Nashville neighbor Tennessee State University held two days later in the Curb Event Center.
Staying true to the OVC Tournament expectations, the Bruins breezed past Austin Peay State University in the semifinal round and dominated the championship matchup 51-29 against No. 2 seed Tennessee Tech University on March 5.
Upon claiming the conference title, punching their ticket to the NCAA Tournament and eagerly anticipating March Madness selection, the Bruins danced through the first round — even though many brackets were against them.
In a game played at UT Knoxville, the Bruins upset some Ducks in the 73-70 double overtime win over No. 5 seeded University of Oregon.
A brave battle in the second round was not enough to bring the Bruins to a historic third-round game, but as the second program with NCAA Tournament victories in consecutive seasons starting from a No. 12 seed or lower, Belmont women’s basketball stands taller than ever on the national stage.
“We will have the three smallest players on the court. There’s nothing small about how they play,” head coach Bart Brooks said at the press conference following the season-ending loss against the Vols.
“There’s nothing small about Belmont. We love the opportunity to go prove that,” he said.
Breaking down the season further, top challengers and big wins have moved the program forward:
The Bruin bench signaling an open player during Saturday’s game versus Oregon. Jessica Mattsson / Belmont Vision
Coming out of the off-season with their first NCAA Tournament victory against Gonzaga University, the addition of two freshmen and teammates who got a taste of the sweet national spotlight, expectations for the squad were higher than ever.
They were picked to win the conference in the OVC preseason poll.
They saw returning sophomore Destinee Wells named Preseason Player of the Year with Conley Chinn and Tuti Jones joining her on the Preseason All-OVC Team.
“We’re still trying to figure out pieces within our offense and defense, just learning how to share the ball and move together,” senior Jamilyn Kinney said before the season.
“There’s going to be nights where some of us might not be shooting the ball well, but if we have that energy and effort and everyone’s together, it moves mountains,” she said.
And it was mountains they had to conquer.
“The more we can play and compete at that level, the better we can get at figuring out what we need to do to be at that level,” Brooks said before the 2021-22 season tipoff.
“I’m fearless about who we play and I ask our players to be fearless about who we play, and we’re excited about it,” he said.
From the first jump ball on Nov. 9, it was game on.
Opening the season with a bang, the Bruins caused some road rage with triumphs over the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and powerhouse University of Mississippi on their respective home courts.
Competitive Georgia Tech soon popped the winning bubble when Belmont recorded its first loss falling 58-45 to the Yellow Jackets on Nov. 14.
The Auburn University Tigers also proved overpowering when they paid a visit to the Curb Event Center a month later for the biggest home game of the season.
“We just had lapses and focus and execution that we got to get cleaned up,” Brooks said after the Dec. 15 matchup. “I love our team. I think we could still be really good. We’re just not there yet.”
But they did get there.
Besides the Auburn defeat and falling short to Tennessee Tech University on Jan. 22, Belmont kept a clean sheet at home with a fan-satisfactory 10-2 record on the Curb court.
The overall 23-8 win-loss balance includes highlights like the Bruins’ home opening 63-34 win versus Alabama A&M University on Nov. 18, their defense of the Battle of the Boulevard title on Dec. 2 and their dominating 16-2 conference play.
The Belmont community could not ask for more after ending the regular season on a 10-game win streak and fulfilling all expectations before they leave the OVC for the Missouri Valley Conference next season.
“Our team proved today that we are a championship program,” Brooks said after his fourth OVC Championship victory. “We displayed unbelievable resilience and toughness today, and that’s what winners do.”
With their resilience and championship heart, maybe it was the basketball team who could ask more from a Belmont community who attends women’s games in far lower numbers than men’s.
But come March Madness, the university showed up big in blue and red.
From packed stands to university-wide initiatives and passionate cheering in the state of Tennessee and beyond, women’s basketball was backed up by an army of fans on game day.
After a disappointing and emotional close to the season in Knoxville, the goodbyes of the team’s four seniors Chinn, Kinney, Macie Culbertson and Allison Luly could no longer be avoided.
Belmont basketball trailblazer Betty Wiseman embracing graduating senior Conley Chinn after the Oregon win, amid happy tears. Wiseman was instrumental in bringing women’s basketball to Belmont in 1968 and came out to support her Bruins in Knoxville. Jessica Mattsson / Belmont Vision
Whether their contributions came on the court or the bench in their final Belmont season, the four greatly impacted the program; as for Chinn and Kinney on the floor, their last big baskets in the Curb added the cherry on top as they played their last home game on homecoming day.
“For those two players to walk off the floor after making threes at the end was pretty cool to see,” Brooks said after the game’s senior recognitions. “Overall, it was a special night for all of our seniors.”
Despite the sports part of the student-athlete lifestyle coming to an end, the in-class grind continues for a while longer.
Led in academic performance by Chinn, an OVC Scholar Athlete of the Year and 2021-22 CoSIDA Academic All-American® Division I Women’s Basketball Team pick, the Bruins posted a GPA of 3.681 in the fall season.
Although Chinn and friends are graduating from Belmont soon, the future of the team seems bright with potential.
With sophomore Wells being named the OVC Tournament MVP, and with sophomore Madison Bartley grabbing a spot on the All-Tournament Team.
With them and fellow sophomore Jones making the All-OVC First Team and Jones earning Defensive Player of the Year.
With freshman Tessa Miller claiming a Freshman of the Week accolade on Dec. 21 and additional teammates continuously coming off strong from the bench, providing valuable depth for the Bruins; it’s a depth that will grow with the addition of incoming freshmen Caroline Bachus, Brooke Highmark and Kate Hollifield in the 2022-23 season.
Women’s basketball launches into a new era, bigger and better than ever.
“The vision is that there isn’t a ceiling for where we’re going,” Brooks said.
Junior Nikki Baird waiting to spring into action on the court the night the Bruins beat the Ducks. Jessica Mattsson / Belmont Vision
PHOTO: Women’s basketball huddling up before Saturday’s matchup with Oregon — a game that was all smiles before and all smiles after. Jessica Mattsson / Belmont Vision
This article was written by Jessica Mattsson.