EVANSVILLE, Ind. – The Belmont women's basketball team is going dancing, headed back to the NCAA Tournament for a fourth straight year.
The Bruins won their fourth consecutive Ohio Valley Conference championship Saturday with a 59-53 victory over UT Martin in a rematch of last season's instant classic title bout. Where that game took overtime to decide, the Bruins (26-6) wrapped up the program's fifth NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Championship appearance in regulation this time around at Evansville's Ford Center.
As winners of the first conference to punch its ticket to the Big Dance, the OVC-champion Bruins will wait a week to learn their NCAA Tournament destiny. The tournament selection show will unveil the 64-team bracket on Monday, March 18.
The show airs at 6 p.m. (Central) that evening on ESPN.
The No. 3 seed Skyhawks (23-9) whittled what was a 10-point Belmont lead down to three, 54-51, with 1:30 to play. Freshman forward Conley Chinn (Jackson, Miss.) answered with the biggest basket of her young career, knocking down a straight-away 3-pointer on a pass from senior Jenny Roy (Brentwood, Tenn.) with 1:09 to play.
The teams traded two free throws apiece the rest of the way and senior Hannah Harmeyer (Kenosha, Wis.) made the game-ending steal in the final seconds to clinch the victory and the crown for the top-seeded Bruins.
"I can't say enough about their fight, their toughness and their relentless effort even when things weren't going perfectly," Belmont Head Coach Bart Brooks said of his players after the game. "Tennessee Martin did a great job to get us out of rhythm on offense, but that didn't shake our toughness on defense."
Belmont battled all game against a determined defensive effort from the Skyhawks. Leading the charge was Roy, who played 38 minutes despite leaving Friday's semifinal win with an injury. She finished with eight points, 11 rebounds and six assists on the way to tournament MVP honors.
The guard, who along with her senior teammates finished her career a perfect 12-0 in OVC Tournament games, deflected praise from all angles though. On a night when five Bruins scored between eight and 16 points – including two freshmen – Belmont's victory was truly a team effort, Roy said.
"They have stepped up to every challenge that's been put in front of them," Roy said of Belmont's crop of young players. "They're fighters and competitors and you could see it in their eyes tonight. It's such a cool feeling to watch them develop and come into their own. We could not have done it without them and everyone on that bench."
Junior Ellie Harmeyer (Kenosha, Wis.) led the team with the 16 points and became Belmont's second player to pass 1,000 career points this week. Roy reached the milestone in Wednesday's first round.
Ellie Harmeyer added nine rebounds. Chinn went for nine points and seven rebounds and junior Maddie Wright (Chattanooga, Tenn.) had nine points and eight boards. Freshman Jamilyn Kinney (Van Buren, Ark.) rounded out the top scorers with eight points.
OVC Player of the Year Darby Maggard (Larwill, Ind.) was held to a pair of 3-pointers and six points while under the watch of UT Martin defender Emanye Robertson. But that attention created other scoring opportunities that Belmont was quick to take advantage of, Maggard said.
"She comes out every single time we play them and she's glued to me," she said. "I'm not mad about it, I'm not. It opens up other things for our team and that's what makes our team so hard to guard. If you take me out, that's totally fine. Ellie's going to go get buckets in the paint and Jenny is going to drive it to the rim."
It was the third time Belmont and UT Martin have met in the OVC title game in Belmont's seven seasons as a conference member. The teams split those prior to Saturday's outcome. Belmont was playing in its fifth OVC championship in that time as well.