Conley Chinn seriously thought about playing college volleyball.
The opposing women’s basketball teams in the Ohio Valley Conference wishes she would have.
The Jackson Academy graduate and Belmont University junior forward has become a star in the OVC, making first team All-Conference this season. She ranks high in three categories in the league, 12th in scoring (12.5 points per game), fifth in field goal percentage (45.8) and 14th in 3-pointers per game (1.7). Chinn has started all 25 of Belmont’s games.
The rest of the country gets to see what the OVC has watched over the past three seasons when Chinn and the No. 12 seed Belmont, 20-5, meet No. 5 seed Gonzaga, 23-3, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Monday at 3 p.m. on ESPN in San Antonio.
“She has been a rock-solid member of our team. She shows up every day, and I wish I could clone her energy and effort and distribute it to everyone,” Belmont coach Bart Brooks said. “She just brings it every single day. She is a player that always leads by example.”
Chinn’s drive and willingness to work hard every day all started at JA and from longtime JA coach Jan Sojourner, now the third winningest high school girls basketball coach in Mississippi history with 988 victories, who just completed her 36th season at JA, 41st season overall.
“I learned how to work hard from my older sisters (Courtney, Casey and Carly), who all played for Coach Sojourner,” Chinn said. “Coach Sojourner demands her players to put in the effort and work hard. Her players were and are successful because of it. I wanted to do just like my sisters and play for Coach Sojourner, be that player that worked hard and was successful.”
Chinn was. She led JA to two MAIS Overall championships as a junior and senior with a combined record of 78-3. Chinn was named the MAIS Player of the Year both seasons. She scored 1,360 career points with 916 rebounds and 330 blocked shots and played in 141 games. Chinn holds the school record for career rebounds.
“Conley has incredible work ethic,” Sojourner said. “No one will out work her. When she comes home she works out with (trainer) Horatio Webster at MBA and comes up to JA to shoot. She is loyal, to her school, her teammates and her coaches. She is so coachable and she listens to what her coaches say. She understands what it takes to play at the Division I level. Conley is a wonderful representative of Jackson Academy and our basketball program. She was redshirted her freshman year after she was injured, but she worked her back and into the starting lineup.”
“The Belmont coaches loved her enthusiasm, her size, her length and even though she played the post for us, they knew her potential to be able to move outside. She’s now comfortable on the 3-point line. She loves playing and it shows. She plays the game very hard and plays it with excitement. She was always a great defender in high school and she is in college as well.”
But before the 6-foot-1 Chinn decided on Belmont, she saw herself as a Division I volleyball player, possibly playing at a national program like UCLA.
“I loved volleyball and still do and I thought early in high school that was going to be my sport in college,” said Chinn, who was the Mississippi Gatorade Volleyball Player of the Year as a junior and led JA to three straight state championships. “I didn’t think any Division I schools would want me in basketball. I remember we were playing MRA (Madison-Ridgeland Academy) and Southern Miss came to watch Amber Landing and Southern Miss showed some interest in me. That’s the first time a Division I school looked at me. Then Trista Magee of PCS (Presbyterian Christian School in Hattiesburg who played at Alabama) got me in contact with an AAU team in Alabama (Southern All-Stars) and the coach there knew exactly where I would fit in, at Belmont. He sent them film and Belmont came to watch me play at an elite camp and liked me.”
Chinn verbally committed to Belmont as a junior.
“I fell in love with Belmont,” Chinn said. “I love playing basketball here, but I love everything about it. I love Nashville, the small size of the school, the small classrooms, the coaching staff. I love the girls on the team, they are strong in their faith, come from great families and there’s no drama on the team. It was easy to come here and fit in.”
And Belmont loved her. Chinn had a setback as a true freshman, injuring her ankle a week before the season started, which required season-ending surgery. Chinn was redshirted.
“That year of watching helped me,” Chinn said. “It was like a warmup year. We won the conference tournament championship and went to the NCAA Tournament. I learned a lot that year.”
Chinn worked hard in rehab from her surgery to become one of the top players off the bench as a redshirt freshman, giving Belmont an energy boost, and hitting some key shots during the game. She averaged 4.9 points and 2.9 rebounds in 14.6 minutes per game. One of her highlights was scoring 10 points against SEC powerhouse South Carolina in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Chinn worked her way into the starting lineup last season, averaging 7.9 points and 4.6 rebounds and helping Belmont to the OVC co-regular season championship.
Not only has Chinn excelled in basketball at Belmont, she has in the classroom as well. Chinn received the OVC Academic Medal of Honor for the past two years, having a 4.0 grade point average, majoring in pre-med. She has one more year of eligibility, then plans on entering med school.
“Conley has worked extremely hard during her time at Belmont to achieve on the court and in the classroom,” Brooks said. “She is the epitome of a student-athlete, and I’m so impressed by her ability to balance high-level basketball performance with high-level achievement in the classroom. We are so proud of all Conley has accomplished.”
Chinn feels she and her teammates are ready to take the next step, to win the first NCAA Tournament game in school history. Belmont has won 10 in a row, by an average of 15.2 points per game, and Chinn has been the team’s leading rebounder in five of those wins. Chinn has led the team’s leading scorer six times this season and had a career high 23 points twice, against Murray State and Eastern Illinois.
Chinn’s parents, Mark and Cathy, and one of her sisters, Carly, will be at the game Monday.
“The NCAA means a lot to us. Having been to the NCAA Tournament a couple of times and having lost…it hurts. Now our goal isn’t just to get to the NCAA Tournament,” Chinn said. “Of course, we are happy to be there. There’s more we are searching for this time. We want to win. That’s why we are so excited. We get a chance to prove to a lot of people that we deserve to be on basketball’s biggest stage. We get to represent Belmont and we get to represent all the people who have come before us.”