After its second consecutive undefeated conference season, first-time national ranking and third straight OVC Championship title and NCAA tournament appearance, the Belmont women’s basketball team is preparing to accomplish something it never has before — advancing past the first round of the Big Dance.
The task at hand won’t be easy. The No. 12 seed Belmont Bruins will be taking on the No. 5 seed Duke Blue Devils — a program that has grabbed a win in every single one of its 24 tournament appearances.
Head coach Bart Brooks, who will make his head coaching debut in the tournament Saturday morning, said the team will have to play a sharp game if they want to beat the Blue Devils.
“For us to win these type of games we can’t give them easy baskets and easy baskets come from our turnovers or taking shots that we have no chance to make,” Brooks said. “That is a huge key for us and that is something we have to be really sharp about and it has to be a 40 minute deal, because if you relax for a minute that could be a run that these guys go on.”
Duke is also a much larger team, boasting 18 players who stand six feet or taller to the Bruins’ six.
“The first thing when you watch film is that they’re huge. They have really big kids at all positions, and they’re really long, they’re really athletic,” Brooks said. “So it’s been something we’ve been working on all week. It’s going to be an adjustment against the length they bring to the game and we talked about it all year.”
But the Bruins also shouldn’t be counted out. The team outscores Duke by a 9-point average and holds a 46.5 field goal percentage to the Blue Devils’ 39 percent.
Belmont also grabs an average of roughly 43 rebounds per game to Duke’s 38 — a strategy Brooks said will be key for the Bruins’ offensive chances.
“We have to defend, we have to rebound to have a chance and I think that’s really true for this one too,” he said.
Following a near upset of the No. 4 seeded Kentucky team in the 2017 tournament, senior center Sally McCabe said the team’s confidence is also much higher going into Saturday’s game.
“I definitely do think it helps with confidence, just to think about that game last year and to know how much fun it was to play in that kind of game and how tight it was and the toughness that was showed really helps thinking about this game this year,” McCabe said. “But this is a totally different team, and team that we’re playing against, so we have to consider that as well.”
Saturday’s matchup is also special for senior forward Kylee Smith, whose hometown sits just 90 minutes west of Stegeman Coliseum.
“I am so happy to be home,” she said. “I grew up going to camps here at the University of Georgia. A lot of my friends from high school went to UGA, so it’s great to be back in Athens and close to home.”
Smith also shares a close friendship with Duke’s star guard Lexie Brown.
“I think it’s just really special. It’s not everyday you get to play in the NCAA tournament versus your best friend,” Smith said. “We’re both super competitive; we both love basketball.”
“I think it’s going to be a fun experience.”
Tipoff for Saturday’s first round matchup is slated for 10 a.m. CST. The game will also be broadcast on ESPN2.
This article written by Zach Gilchriest. Photos by Carina Eudy and Zach Gilchriest.