Though making the tournament has become old news for the Belmont women’s basketball team, the Bruins will look to do something they’ve never done before on Friday — advancing past the first round.
Belmont clinched its automatic bid to the big dance for the fourth year in a row by winning the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament earlier in March. The Bruins are one of only two programs in the nation to have won four straight NCAA Division I Conference Tournaments.
“We’re thrilled to be here. We’re one of 64 teams who get to compete for a national championship, so that’s always special anytime you’re included in this tournament,” said Belmont head coach Bart Brooks.
The team drew a 13 seed on Selection Monday, which pits them against the No. 4 seeded University of South Carolina.
South Carolina will be one of the tougher teams Belmont will face this season.
The Gamecocks finished out their regular season with a 21-8 record, and they ranked No. 15 in the final Associated Press Poll of the season on Monday. Their season included wins against powerhouses like University of Tennessee and University of Kentucky.
“There’s a huge challenge ahead of us against South Carolina, they’re a talented team,” Brooks said.
But the Bruins may have one thing in their favor that the Gamecocks lack — momentum.
Belmont is coming off of three big wins in the OVC Tournament, culminating in the Bruins’ hard-fought victory against University of Tennessee Martin in the tournament final.
South Carolina, on the other hand, earned a two-round bye in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, but then lost the first game they played – against University of Arkansas in the tournament quarterfinal. This means that the Gamecocks haven’t won a game since they beat Auburn in their second-to-last game of the regular season on Feb. 28.
Both teams will come into this game with a well-rounded roster, not relying too heavily on one star player.
South Carolina will look for leadership from senior Alexis Jennings, who leads the team in rebounds with 6.2 per game, and juniors Te’a Cooper — the team’s lead scorer with 11.6 points per game — and Tyasha Harris — who’s averaging 5.3 assists per game.
The Gamecocks are no strangers to the NCAA Tournament, as the program has competed in it each year since 2012. For the current juniors and seniors, this includes experience winning the most coveted award in college basketball, the NCAA Tournament Championship in 2017.
Though Belmont may lack experience with winning NCAA Tournament games, Brooks believes that the months of hard work the team has poured into this season will help them to play their best.
“It starts with our first workout last June. We start with the premise that it’s not a play, it’s not a scheme that’s going to win a game. It’s our players making plays,” Brooks said. “Our players have been through a season of adversity. We put them into some challenging situations with seven of our 11 non-conference games on the road. They understand how to focus and keep their calm and their poise and to play with our tempo and our speed.”
Tournament veterans like OVC Player of the Year Darby Maggard — who leads the team in scoring with 17.2 points per game — will help set that pace in high-pressure situations.
Maggard is one of just five players in NCAA Division I history to score 400 career threes. During the OVC semifinal, she also became the fourth player in Belmont women’s basketball history to score 2,000 career points. If the Bruins can get the ball to Maggard for open shots, South Carolina will have a hard time stopping them.
Belmont will also need big numbers from junior Ellie Harmeyer and senior Jenny Roy. Harmeyer is averaging 16.7 points per game and leads the team with 9 rebounds per game. She’s also earned 13 double-doubles this season, making a huge difference for the Bruins on both ends of the court.
Roy, the team leader in assists with 5.6 per game, has been a key player for the Bruins all year. She played especially well in the OVC Tournament and won its Most Valuable Player award. If Roy can log solid numbers all over the court like she did in the tournament final — where she had 8 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists — the Bruins will be a much harder team to beat.
“We are not really looking at their previous games, but more looking at the future and what this game is going to entail,” Roy said. “Really, we just have been focusing on ourselves and how we are going to run our offense, how we’re going to guard them. They are very talented.”
Both teams also have freshmen who can come off the bench and make a big difference in key moments of the game.
South Carolina has two SEC All-Freshman team members, Destanni Henderson and Vactaria Saxton, who have been consistent scorers for the team.
Belmont will look to freshmen like Conley Chinn and Jamilyn Kinney to keep the energy up if the starters get tired.
The Bruins know they have a tough opponent in South Carolina, but their primary focus will be playing their best in the style that has worked for them all year.
“Everything we do every day is built on us doing what we do at our highest level, and we’re not overly concerned on the result. We’re concerned with us doing what we can do, controlling what we can control,” Brooks said.
“If at the end of the day that’s what it takes to win, like I said we’ll throw a party. But if it’s not, we can still look ourselves in the mirror knowing that we did our best and that’s really all we ask.”
The game is set to tip off at 12:45 p.m. Central time, and it will air on ESPN2.
Photos by Melissa Kriz.