‘Big Dance’ awaits belles of OVC ball

‘Big Dance’ awaits belles of OVC ball
‘Big Dance’ awaits belles of OVC ball
NASHVILLE — A youthful UT Martin women’s basketball team grew up right in front of everyone’s eyes.
The nation’s youngest roster — with a decidedly rural West Tennessee flavor — completed a meteoric rise to the top of the Ohio Valley Conference with an 82-76 tournament championship game victory over Tennessee Tech Saturday at the Municipal Auditorium.
The first-ever OVC tourney women’s title carries the perk of perhaps a bigger accomplishment — a trip to the NCAA Women’s Tournament — another first for the program that won just seven games in the two seasons combined before last year.
Tournament Most Valuable Player Jasmine Newsome scored 24 points and fellow decorated backcourt mate and all-tournament team selection Heather Butler added 21 points in the title game triumph for UTM (21-10), which also got double-digit scoring from three other players (Taylor Hall 13, Alecia Weatherly 11 and Perica Glenn 10).
UTM head coach Kevin McMillan, who assembled a roster that included nine freshmen — four of those from rugged District 13AA (Butler, Glenn, Aubrey Reedy and Grace Ann Swaim) — to make up a team that had just two players in all with any collegiate experience for his second season.
And he said his club’s youth kept its accomplishment from immediately and fully sinking in.
“I don’t think they know what they’ve done, and they know that,” McMillan laughed in a postgame press conference, while noting he’d scheduled a 10-game road trip to begin the season in which his troops posted a 5-5 record against quality competition. “We gambled and took a chance with that.
“To be honest, though, I thought we recruited talented enough kids to be as good as we are. And it’s really enjoyable to coach when the kids don’t care who is going to get rebounds or score points. They want to do well for each other.”
McMillan, whose staff — like his team has area ties in prep legend David Russell (Bradford, Gibson County) and former Westview boys’ skipper Brian Haskins — started five freshmen in the first four games of the year. He started four in Saturday’s OVC championship game while building this year’s club around the dynamic backcourt duo of Newsome (Co-Defensive Player of the Year) and Butler (Freshman of the Year).
Several other players have performed well throughout the season at various times, with juco transfer Hall, who tied a career-high with 13 points — one day after Glenn did the same with 18 in the semifinals — the latest of those examples.
“I heard a quote the other day that tournaments are made for people you didn’t see stepping up, stepping up,” McMillan continued. “We had a bunch step up today. (Alecia) Weatherly, Perica (Glenn) and Taylor (Hall) were all in double figures and they really sold out to the way we had to play to be successful.”
UTM built a lead as big as 13 points late in the first half as cold-shooting Tech hit just nine of its first 30 shots while hitting but 33 percent in all from the floor. Newsome and Glenn combined for 20 of the Skyhawks’ 34 points, while another frosh — Jaclissa Haislip — led all rebounders with a half-dozen.
Weatherly’s old-fashioned 3-point play began a second half that saw UT Martin blister the nets at an 8-for-12 (66.7 percent) to build its largest lead — 50-33 after a Glenn bucket with 13:45 to play.
TTU (23-7), which heated up considerably after the intermission when it made half of its 32 field goal tries, repeatedly cut into that deficit behind all-tourney performer Tacarra Hayes, who led all scorers with 33 points.
But the Skyhawks used Hall’s third 3-pointer, seven straight markers by Newsome and a perfect 12-for-12 effort from the charity stripe in the last 2:50 to keep the Lady Eagles from getting any closer than the final margin.
In all, UTM hit all 18 of its second half foul shots and 25-of-29 (86.2 percent) in all.
McMillan also noted the following of his squad that numbered in excess of 500 fans and was vocal throughout.
“West Tennessee loves its women’s basketball,” he insisted. “Its always a priority. There have been great players and coaches to come from there and want them to come to Tennessee Martin.
“We believe in the kids from our area because we know where they’re from and how they handle situations.”
It’s made growing up a lot easier — and faster.
Sports editor Mike Hutchens can be contacted by e-mail at mhutch@ucmessenger.com.

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