By Robert Wilson
Jackson Academy alumnus and Belmont senior forward Conley Chinn said her team was confident and ready to show the world what Belmont could do.
The world of women’s college basketball knows now.
Chinn and her Belmont teammates upset Oregon 73-70 in double overtime Saturday night in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at Knoxville.
Ohio Valley Conference regular season and tournament champion Belmont, 22-7, came in as a No. 12 seed, and won its 13rd straight game. Belmont meets No. 4 Tennessee today at 6 p.m. Central on Tennessee’s home court in the second round on ESPN. Oregon, 20-12, was a No. 5 seed and had made four consecutive Sweet 16 appearances, including a Final Four in 2019. This is the second straight year Belmont pulled a first-round upset, beating Gonzaga last season and it was the first NCAA Tournament win in school history and the first for an Ohio Valley Conference team since 1990.
Chinn scored 10 points, including a 3-pointer to tie the game with 46 seconds to play in the first overtime and a layup for a 70-70 tie with 1:49 to play in the game. Chinn and her teammates kept Oregon from scoring in the final 2:05 to secure the win. Chinn’s 10 points puts her only 29 points from 1,000 career points.
“Our win last year against Gonzaga gives us that edge and being able to know that it can be done,” said Chinn at this week’s pregame news conference. “It gives us so much confidence and with everybody returning this year, we’ve been excited to get to this point. We are more than confident; we are excited to play together and show the world what Belmont can do. This is what we dream of. Oregon is a very talented team. We get to play Oregon, a team that you’ve been hearing about since you were a little girl. It’s a blessing.”
Belmont played a tough non-conference schedule, five NCAA Tournament teams, including Ole Miss, and had the sixth toughest non-conference schedule in the country.
This win Saturday night was another highlight of an outstanding career for Chinn at Belmont. Not only was she a first team All Ohio Valley Conference selection last season, but Chinn is also one of OVC Scholar-Athlete Award winners this year, Chinn has a perfect 4.0 GPA while pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology (pre-med) and minoring in physical science. She is also a three-time OVC Academic Medal of Honor recipient and three-time OVC Commissioner’s Honor Roll member.
Inducted into both Belmont’s Alpha Chi honor society (top 10 percent of the junior class) and the Psi Chi honor society (psychology honor society), Chinn serves as Vice President of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) where she is chair of the community service committee and is engaged in the Psychology Club on campus. Heavily involved with Belmont’s Best Buddies program, Chinn serves as the liaison for the entire athletics department.
“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, the third winningest high school girls basketball coach in Mississippi history and won her 1,000th game this year. Sojourner finished her 37th season this year at JA, 42nd 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.
“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.”