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Belmont edges Booneville 40-39 in instant classic to clinch 2024 MHSAA 3A Championship

Just like the first two meetings between the region rivals, Friday's championship came down to the final couple of possessions

When Belmont star Carlie Brock fouled out with 1:08 to go and sent Booneville's two-time Miss Basketball winner Sa'niyah Cook to the line in a tie game, it looked like the Lady Cardinals were cooked.

But coach Chris Higginbottom's bunch are a lot more than their star guard, and they proved it Friday by grinding out a 40-39 win over their region rival to clinch the 2023-2024 Class 3A State Championship at the Mississippi Coliseum.

Cook made the first of her two free throws to put the Lady Devils (25-2) ahead by one point at 38-37, and Belmont was forced to foul again with 39 seconds left when Booneville's Kaylee Johnson got the long rebound on the second free throw.

But Belmont's Hailey Ivey stole the ball on the in-bounds play after the foul near mid-court, raced down the court and sunk the go-ahead layup to give the Cardinals the 38-37 lead with 13 seconds to go. 

After an unforced error led to another Booneville turnover, Ivey stroked two free throws to run the Belmont lead to 40-37 with nine seconds left.

The Lady Devils had time for one more shot, and Ava Kate Smith was fouled on what would have been the game-tying three-pointer with three-tenths of a second left on the clock. She missed the first of the three free throws, leaving Booneville one point short.

Ivey's late-game heroics served as exclamation points at the end of an outstanding individual performance. The junior finished with a game-high 17 points and earned MVP honors.

And Belmont needed it, too. Both Brock and forward Sadie Randolph, who was tasked with slowing down Cook inside, went into the fourth quarter with four fouls.

"When Carlie fouled out, she told me this was my game to finish now," Ivey said. "I was like 'great, no pressure.'"

But finish it she did.

"That's part of what makes this team so special," Brock said. "We're a lot more than one or two players. We have depth, and that allowed us to stay in the game even with the foul trouble."

The state title is the 13th for the storied Belmont girls' basketball program, the first since 2021 and the fifth under Higginbottom.

Booneville was vying for its second-straight state championship. The Lady Devils won the two previous meetings this season against Belmont, winning 59-56 on Feb. 7 and 61-54 on Feb. 12.

Like those first two games, Friday's championship bout was neck-and-neck for most of the contest. Belmont led it 12-11 after the first quarter and 19-14 at the half. Booneville closed the gap in the third quarter and went into the fourth facing a 30-28 deficit.

Higginbottom said that familiarity can be a double-edged sword, but that it worked in the Lady Cardinals' favor Friday.

"I've coached in eight state championship games since I came to Belmont 19 years ago," Higginbottom said. "And in seven of those games, we faced a team from our own region in the title game... These games usually come down to one or two possessions, and who steps up and makes a play. That's why I'm so proud of our girls for playing together and finding a way to win."