Focused. Nervous. Excited. Relieved.
That was Bellmont senior Grace Hunter in a nutshell on Monday night. The four-year starter poured everything she had into a 50-42 win over Northeast 8 Conference rival Norwell and it showed. She got battered around the court as the Knights threw every defense they had at her, challenging her to try and score.
She out-toughed them all.
Hunter scored 19 points in a variety of ways in the win. She came off screens to get open looks, she powered in the post, she took off on fast breaks and took her defender(s) off the dribble. She also added 12 rebounds and ended the night on her home court exhausted, sweaty and smiley.
In the small-sighted picture of things, it was one win, a win that doesn’t even secure Bellmont its second NE8 title in four years…quite yet. But in the big picture, beating Norwell was everything. While Hunter has yet to check off the box next to the word ‘sectional title,’ we have to ask: did finally beating Norwell, after three years coming up empty, solidify anything there was left to prove? Beating Norwell was the unicorn of Bellmont’s ascent since Hunter debuted as a freshman.
The team has gotten better every year, has developed into a championship program and now sits 17-2 this season following Tuesday’s loss to Snider.
Hunter has done it all as an individual while being a catalyst for the program’s growth.
Bellmont coach Andy Heim coached four seasons at the school before Hunter showed up. The team won 14 games total in that stretch. They have improved their win total each year since Hunter was a freshman, from seven to 18 to 19. They have the chance to reach 20 wins this season before the postseason begins. The last three seasons are their only double-digit win seasons in the last decade. Bellmont girls basketball has not won 20 games in a year this millennium.
Heim told Outside the Huddle in the preseason: “Every year when we step on the floor with Grace, we expect her to be a good leader and commit to those hustle plays. Everyone in the area has seen how hard she plays.”
She played extra hard on Monday. Like her life, or more realistically, her legacy depended on it. We say her legacy was already set before the opening buzzer on Monday. On December 5, 2017 she scored a program-record 38 points in what was and still is a program defining win over South Side. On November 13 of last year, she ended the game against Bishop Dwenger with 1,240 career points. That night, her points surpassed Krista Reinking’s from 1994 as the most in Bellmont history.
She also will be the first Bellmont player in a while to head off and play Division I basketball when she goes to Northern Illinois.
But ultimately, we don’t have the final say about Grace Hunter’s legacy. She does.
And whether or not it was solidified on Monday night, finally clearing the hurdle that is Norwell may not matter. Maybe Hunter needs to add a sectional trophy. Maybe she needs to add that second Northeast 8 title that belongs to Bellmont if it beats Huntington North and Leo.
For now anyway, Hunter will get to lean into the emotion of the moment on Monday, even if it is part of a three-game week. After the win over Norwell, she was poignant about what got her and her team to the point that they could upend the NE8 juggernaut.
“The experience and just constantly playing basketball year round, it helps you build for these moments. My trainer [Vernard Hollins] always says ‘you don’t rise to the occasions, you just sink to the level of your training.’ If you train hard, these moments are going to be for you and you are going to take care of them. There is no pressure, it is just a matter of preparation,” she said.