By Tony Adams, Sports Editor
Longtime college coaching legend and Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame member Francis Garmon said when she first started coaching, Midway’s M.T. Rice was a mentor to her. For 55 years, Mr. Rice’s tournament has been one of Texas’ perennial holiday tournaments and Midway has been the host.
The Belton Lady Tigers 2015-2016 team will forever be linked to the tournament following their M.T. Rice/Bush’s Chicken Annual Holiday Tournament Gold Bracket Championship on Wednesday afternoon, a hard-fought 38-37 win over the Westwood Warriors at Midway High School’s Main Arena.
The Lady Tigers are now 17-6, following a perfect 5-0 run. The 17 wins by Belton is their best output since the 2003-2004 Lady Tigers put together an 18-12 season, which resulted in a playoff appearance for then head coach Randy Bell.
Cammie Moore was named M.T. Rice/Bush’s Annual Holiday Tournament Most Valuable player and Keilee Burke was named to the All-Tournament Team.
Fast forward to December 30, 2015. Different faces, brilliant defense.
In the first quarter, Moore’s deadly skills from the three-point arc shined through again, as she put Belton on the board just 18 into the contest. Twenty-nine seconds later, Madison Couch put back an offensive rebound off the glass and Kelsey Haderer hit a three-pointer to put Westwood up on top a minute later, 5-3.
Moore hit a running jumper through the lane to tie the game at 5-5, only to have Westwood break off an 11-3 run over a 2:41 span. Sophie Taylor, who had dynamite range for the Lady Warriors, hit trio of three-pointers during the stretch and Belton found themselves down eight points, 13-5.
The teams traded baskets towards the end of the quarter and Belton trailed 18-10 at the close of the period.
Emily del Real popped in a jumper from 16 feet out to close the gap to six at the 7:17 mark. Kendall Krumme answered with a three-pointer to pull Westwood out to a nine point lead, 21-12, with 6:43 to play in the half.
Kale Kincannon answered the bell for Belton with a three-pointer 35 seconds later, while the Lady Tiger defense suffocated the Westwood offense for 5:30. McKenna Lindley hit a bucket with 1:15 remaining and Krumme’s three-point gave the Lady Warriors their biggest lead with 37 seconds to go, 25-15. Burke took a beautiful inbound feed from Kaitlyn Jones and banked it off the backboard for the final points of the half, as the Lady Tigers trailed 25-17.
If at any point in this season that there was a point of time that Belton will remember, it may very well be the first six minutes of the third quarter.
Burke, Blair Gilbert, Hannah Martin and Natasha Blizzard combined for a 12-0 run, with Martin dropping a pair of three-point daggers and Gilbert’s field goal putting Belton back out in front. During the streak, Belton forced several turnovers and executed great ball handling. The Lady Tigers led 29-25 before Danielle Davalos hit two three-pointers before the end of the third quarter and helped Westwood regain the lead, 31-29.
Burke’s short jumper 49 seconds into the final stanza to tie the game and 1:12 later, hit a put back to put Belton up by two points. Jones hit a rain-maker for three points with 4:49 to play to put Belton up by five points and the Lady Tigers’ faithful were starting to feel the energy, but still cautious.
Jones picked up a key steal with 3:20 remaining, but a loose ball went the other way and Taylor cashed it in with 2:43 remaining to narrow the lead to three points. Just 13 seconds later, Gilbert fed Martin on the drive and she banked it off the glass to put Belton back up 38-33. Burke came up golden on a block attempt of a Taylor three-point attempt. After a turnover, Davalos dropped another three-pointer from 25 feet away to make the score 38-36. A foul by Blizzard with 26 seconds remaining sent Couch to the free throw line. She missed the front end of a two-shot set and sunk the second, cutting the Belton lead to one point. Westwood fouled twice, but could not get the ball back and the Lady Tigers celebrated their championship.
Moore was very proud of the effort that she and the Lady Tigers put forth.
“It was such a great win and it means the world to all of us,” Moore said. “I was proud of our defense and we played hard the entire tournament.”
The Lady Tigers allowed just 146 points in five games, an average of 29.2 points per game. It was a stellar defensive tournament, with posting a pair of shutout quarters on Tuesday against Rockwall and Cedar Park, as well as periods of 5:30 and 6:37 period against Westwood.
“It is a huge confidence booster for our program,” Belton head coach Brenda Gomez said. “Coach (Bradley) Marek and I have told them and told them that a good, sound fundamental team. When you do the defense, the offense comes. Defensively, I thought we were solid, though we could have played better the first game (49-40 win over Robinson).”
Westwood hit several shots early from long range, which was a concession for what they ran on defense. The longer range out, the lower the percentage of the shot.
“I couldn’t believe the range of the Westwood shots,” Gomez said. “They were dropping through early.”
The tournament win was very gratifying for Gomez. On many nights during her early tenure at Belton, she sought answers for why her teams weren’t successful. Over the past year and a half, the pieces have come together. The players started buying into the system and it has come to fruition this season, as the losses that the team have had so far in 2015, all of those teams have either won or are capable of winning state championships. She was so proud of the team’s efforts during the week.
“I have been in a lot of championship games,” Gomez said, teary-eyed. “It feels like a champion game and I certainly don’t want that to stop now.”
The momentum of this win is anticipated to send positive waves up and down the Tigers’ Basketball program, not only on the varsity and sub-varsity level, but also on the middle school level.
“I believe it will have a great impact,” Gomez said. “These kids have worked so hard and I am so happy for them to have experienced such a big win, in a big place, in a big tournament. They deserve all of it, because it has been tons and tons of hard work. They believe that they can do it now and they put forth a huge effort.”
Although the tournament win is a huge accomplishment for the program, Gomez does not believe the girls will be satisfied.
“I don’t believe the girls will just be satisfied with this win,” Gomez said. “They have tasted victory and know that there is more ahead. They will go back to work and be very excited.”
The decision to shift there focus away from the Lampasas Holiday Tournament to play at the M.T. Rice Tournament was one that Gomez knew would challenge her team and it is certainly no swipe at that tournament, as Belton has played quality competition there. But success in this tournament was sudden.
“It’s almost too quick,” Gomez joked.
The District 12-6A schedule is fast approaching and it contains nine games remaining. Currently sitting at 17-6, for the first time in 12 seasons, the Lady Tigers are assured a winning season. And this was accomplished before the turn of the calendar into 2016.