April 24, 2014 10:07:49 PM
Adam Minichino - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- Kristie Williams recalls hearing the whispers as early as six or seven years ago.
The Starkville High School girls basketball coach remembers people couldn't stop talking about a young player named Imane Montgomery, a fifth- or sixth-grader, who was making an impression in the Starkville Area Youth Basketball League.
When Williams decided to see for herself, she realized right away Montgomery was going to be a special player.
"I saw that potential immediately because she was not going to shy away from getting the basketball, grabbing that rebound," Williams said. "You could see it early on, so those whispers actually were good whispers to come across because I was able to see it and I was able to count down the days she was able to play varsity ball with us."
On Thursday, Williams couldn't help bring up those whispers when she made her remarks during a ceremony to celebrate Montgomery's decision to sign a scholarship to play basketball at Holmes Community College in Goodman.
"It is very special. I am very excited," Montgomery said. "I really didn't know I had the talent I had now until I started with coach Williams. She made me a better basketball player."
Montgomery, a 5-foot-7 guard, averaged 16 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 3.0 steals per game and teamed this season with senior point guard Blair Schaefer, who will play at Mississippi State, to lead Lady Yellow Jackets to the Class 6A North State playoffs.
Williams said Montgomery came up through the city's youth basketball feeder system and worked her way into the mix for the high school's varsity team as a sophomore. She said Montgomery waited her turn and honed her skills to become a versatile back-to-the basket or a face-up player who was comfortable shooting from 3-point range.
"She stepped up, and from her 10th-grade year through the end of this senior year she has been a key piece of our puzzle as far as our success over the years," Williams said. "She is a unique player because she has the body frame and the knack of a forward, but she has the size of a guard. She had to learn how to come out from under the basket and come out to the wing and learn how to penetrate back to the basket. That was a process she didn't shy away from. She knew to get to college she would be a wing player."
Williams said Montgomery spent hours working on her game to prepare her for the next level. Montgomery said the hours of practice initially were "hard" but she adjusted and realized she had to put in the time to realize her goal.
"I knew I could do it because when I stepped up in ninth grade," Montgomery said. "When I started, I was shooting from inside the 3-point line. Now I can shoot outside the 3-point line."
Montgomery admits she knew in the back of her mind that an undersized post player wouldn't have a great chance to move on to the next level.
She said that realization helped make the transition into a perimeter player that much easier. This season, she feels she proved to people she is much more than a one-dimensional player who can score with her back to the basket.
In fact, Montgomery hopes she showed opponents and coaches she could be a "beast" on the court who couldn't be stopped inside or outside.
Her goal is to take that same mentality to Holmes C.C., which she picked over Copiah-Lincoln based on the mix of academics and athletics.
Williams smiled as she listened to the whispers turn into louder banter as her players moved to get a piece of Montgomery's cake. While Imane and her teammates ate, Williams expressed confidence the player she once heard great things about as an elementary schooler would deliver similar results in college.
"Her self-confidence started building," Williams said. "When you're a fifth-grader, you hear that you can be that great player, but she learned through hard work and her dedication to the game that she could do this. Her self-confidence kept growing. She started hearing people in the crowd saying, 'Wow, is that No. 22 ever going to graduate?' I kept hearing that from coaches. She started hearing it and realized I am a really good player and I just have to believe in myself. That is one thing she does. She believes in herself and she believes she can continue to grow as a player."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.