HATTIESBURG – Don’t look now, but the defending 5A State Champions have posted a 15-4 record midway through January.
The Hattiesburg Lady Tigers didn’t have a lot of roster turnover from last season’s 26-6 team, but they’re putting together another successful season while flying under the radar. They earned their 15th victory with a 47-43 decision over South Jones Tuesday, and the close win was something Hattiesburg needed.
“The season has literally been a rollercoaster,” Hattiesburg coach Caronica Jackson said. “As far as our games, we’ve played most of the competitive games, like the close ones; they are the ones that we lost. That’s why it was a big deal tonight to win a close game. We won a close one against Murrah, so we’re still growing and filling the void of a veteran point guard.”
That veteran point guard was Terralyn Ulmer, who started three seasons for the Lady Tigers, and she capped off her senior season with a state championship and PineBeltSPORTS Player of the Year honors. Her sister, junior Chelsea Ulmer, is now charged with the task of filling her shoes.
Chelsea Ulmer hit the game-winning shot in last season’s state championship, and now she’s averaging seven points and nearly three assists per game for Hattiesburg.
“It’s a new position for her, so she’s growing,” Jackson said. “All of that was on her sister last year and she was kind of the second man, but she’s grown a lot for us.”
Along with Ulmer returning, the Lady Tigers brought back a lot of talent from the 2017-18 team, so moving Ulmer to point guard was really the only significant change. Junior Melyia Grayson leads the team with 17 points after a breakout season as a sophomore, and senior Kenedi Walker is back and adds 13 points per game.
Senior Ty Vance, junior Chaise Stinson and junior Kendyl Terrell all provide depth with 16 points and 12 rebounds per game collectively. Players like Terrell, though, also play soccer, so Jackson has had to fiddle with her rotation a lot this season when the two sports play on the same night, like Tuesday.
“We’re dealing with different rotations every other night because we share players with soccer and we have injuries,” she said. “We’re just trying to feel our way through and hope it all gels together next month.”
Besides the lack of consistency in rotations, Jackson still believes the loss of a senior leader is hurting this team three months into the season.
“Terralyn was the starter for three years, so she literally led the team in everything,” Jackson said. “They’re juniors now, but it’s pretty much a leadership factor, and Chelsea is growing into that role, taking care of the ball and able to make those decisions to get it inside to our bigs.”
That’s exactly what Ulmer is doing, and Grayson is benefiting from it. The 6-foot-2 center has scored in double figures 15 of the 19 games this season, and she’s scored a season-high of 27 points. She also adds eight rebounds and four blocks per game, but Grayson alters nearly every shot in the paint.
It’s safe to say the Lady Tigers wouldn’t be where they are now without Grayson.
“I don’t want to think about that right now, because we do rely on her a lot,” Jackson said. “We try to get Chelsea a few shots, but she’s doing a good job of getting it to Melyia. At the end of the day, she’s one of our top scorers. Melyia, we do rely on her a lot because she in-bounds the ball for us; she may be in the middle on the press and then we have to get her down low on the block.”
The Lady Tigers have only played two region games, but they’ve won them both. Their biggest test comes to town Friday, as Pearl River Central (15-3) boasts a 2-0 record in the region as well. The two will play twice down the final stretch of the season, which will determine the order for next month’s region tournament.
The rest of 5A competition looks stout, too. The 5A runner-up last season, West Jones, is a perfect 18-0 while Brookhaven is 18-1. In the north half, Olive Branch (17-3), Lafayette (17-2) and Neshoba Central (12-4) all pose as serious contenders for a state title.
The Hattiesburg Lady Tigers are still the team to beat, however, and Jackson can feel the target on her team’s back.
“It is a new team, new season, but at the end of the day, you still hold that title,” Jackson said. “Whenever you go somewhere, they’re going to say, ‘The defending state champions,’ until somebody else wins it. That’s just the burden that we have.”