REGGIE HAYES: Darby Maggard’s clutch play has Belmont University women’s basketball in thick of March Madness again

Darby Maggard of Belmont University holds a piece of the net after leading the Bruins to the Ohio Valley Conference tournament title Saturday in Evansville. (Photo courtesy Belmont University)
Darby Maggard gestures after a three-point shot during Belmont's win over Jacksonville State in the OVC Tournament last Friday in the Ford Center in Evansville. (Photo courtesy Belmont University)
Darby Maggard, right, drives during Belmont University's win over Murray State last Wednesday in the OVC Tournament in the Ford Center in Evansville. (Photo courtesy Belmont University)

Darby Maggard lives for March Madness.

She demonstrated it again Saturday, hitting a late three-point shot to send the game into overtime, where she and the No. 23 Belmont University Bruins beat the University of Tennessee-Martin 63-56 in the Ohio Valley Conference championship game to earn an NCAA Tournament berth.

It’s the third-straight NCAA berth for Belmont, which coincides with how long Maggard has been on campus. It coincides but it’s not a coincidence.

Maggard has been a clutch tournament player since her days leading Canterbury High School to four state championship appearances and two titles.

“This is the best time of the year, right here,” Maggard said in phone interview Monday. “You know when you step on the court you’re going to get everybody’s best. This is the time of year where you want to be playing your best. That’s when it’s the most fun.”

Maggard, a 5-foot-5 guard who can get her long-range shot off against anyone, any size, any time, is excellent on the court any time of the year. She averages 16.7 points and 5.3 assists per game, hitting 41.4 percent from three-point range. She constantly handles the ball, but commits only 1.7 turnovers a game.

Belmont (31-3) has won 22 straight games and is in the Top 25 for the first time in school history.

Maggard was named the OVC Tournament Most Valuable Player after the championship game.

“I’m honored to get that, and humbled at the same time,” Maggard said. “We don’t win the tournament without each and every one of my teammates. Jenny Roy has nine assists and 14 rebounds in the championship game. She came up clutch. Kylee Smith and Sally McCabe do what they do, they play the best defense and rebound and go score the basketball. It’s a huge honor but it’s about the whole team.”

Maggard and her teammates entered this season heading into new territory when former coach Cameron Newbauer left to take the Florida head coaching.

RELATED STORY: Coach-player bond remains as Cameron Newbauer, Darby Maggard move on

New coach Bart Brooks inherited a veteran team and Maggard did everything she could to help the transition.

“To come in here and take over a team that has been really good and has experienced a lot of success, it’s important the point guard and me are on the same page from the jump,” Brooks said. “I credit her with opening up her arms the second I got here and embracing everything I did and buying into it and being coachable.”

Brooks said Maggard’s leadership paved the way to a quick start, and continued success, in the midst of transitioning to a new coaching style and approach.

“She did that before I’d even earned it,” Brooks said. “It was really her leadership and trust that began the whole thing.”

Maggard, the daughter of a coach, knows how important it is for the players and the coach to be on the same page. She was very close to Newbauer, who recruited her out of high school, but she loves Belmont and wanted to see the program keep moving forward.

She said Brooks did “an amazing job” of coming onto the campus and establishing the player-coach relationships needed to work as one on the court.

“We love coach Bart,” Maggard said. “We bought into him and what he’s doing and the style of coaching he brings to Belmont women’s basketball,” Maggard said. “It honestly starts with him and trickles down to each and every one of my teammates understanding they all bring something so special to our team.”

Brooks said he has watched film of Maggard’s play from previous seasons and sees the continued growth of her game.

She is one of the most fanatical gym rats in the game today.

“I don’t think people realize how hard she’s had to work for every single thing she’s gotten this year,” Brooks said. “Last year, everyone knew she could shoot the ball. People have really worked to not let her score or not let her shoot the ball. In the championship game, they had a kid standing in Darby’s face at all times, never leaving her side.”

Maggard’s ability to see the extra defensive emphasis and find ways to exploit it has contributed to the team’s massive success.

“She’s not just a catch-and-shoot player but an unbelievably valuable playmaker,” Brooks said. “Not just for herself, but for her teammates. She does a great job of getting other people the ball.”

Maggard’s work ethic spills over, too, Brooks said.

“Her impact will be evident two or three years down the road, when the current freshmen are juniors and seniors and we see those guys doing the same things they saw Darby do,” Brooks said. “Her habits are rubbing off on the younger ones already.”

Belmont will have this week off before the NCAA women’s tournament draw. The Bruins have played well in their previous two tournaments against much higher-ranked opponent, losing 73-70 to Kentucky last season and 74-60 to Michigan State the year before.

“We have a good opportunity in front of us to go do some damage,” Maggard said. “We have to come out this week in practice, focus on getting better day by day, making sure we are high-paced and ready to go. No matter who we match up with, bring our best attitude and best effort and let the chips fall where they may.”

Maggard expects the next few days to rejuvenate and refresh her team. After all, the next step is even better. It’s March Madness, Maggard’s favorite time of year.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at