After winning just one nonconference game, the Ferrum women’s basketball team has righted itself — and sits atop the USA South’s East Division standings with a 7-0 league record.

The Panthers, who went 1-7 in nonleague play, are now 8-7 overall and have won four straight games.

“We’re kind of growing as a team,” coach Bryan Harvey said. “We’re starting to figure some things out offensively.

“I thought that the teams that we were playing would prepare for us for the [league] season and I thought that we would be okay when we got into our conference.

“We’ve shown a tremendous amount of improvement in the last two weeks.”

Ferrum returned all five starters from last year’s East Division championship team. But starting point guard Kelli Mounce, a senior, suffered a torn ACL on Dec. 2 in the fifth game of this season.

“Playing without her was tough on us,” Harvey said.

The Panthers entered January with a record of just 3-6 overall, albeit 2-0 in league play.

Jalexus Mitchell, a freshman who graduated from Martinsville High School, took over the starting point guard duties this month.

“She’s never really played the point,” Harvey said. “She’s starting to flourish.”

Ferrum has changed its offensive style in the wake of the early losses.

“We were trying to get out and run a little bit in transition ... and turned the ball over more than we should,” Harvey said. “We’ve tried to slow down to a pace where we feel like we can be a little more sure with the basketball.”

Franklin County graduate Zarkia Mattox is averaging 19.7 points and 9 rebounds, while Erin March averages 9.1 points and 7.9 rebounds. William Byrd graduate Maggie Self is averaging 7.9 points.

Ferrum had hoped to rack up plenty of nonleague wins and build a resume worthy of an NCAA at-large bid.

But that 1-7 nonleague record, which included losses to four ODAC teams, put a quick end to those at-large hopes. Ferrum will have to capture the automatic NCAA bid that goes to the winner of next month’s league tournament.

Ferrum lost to West Division powers Maryville and Piedmont last month in games that did not count toward its conference record. Ferrum might have to face one or both of those teams again in the league tournament, but Harvey is optimistic.

“If we keep getting better, I think we’ll ... be in the mix,” Harvey said of the league tournament.

Mounce plans to seek a medical redshirt so she can play for the Panthers as a fifth-year senior next season. She was already going to have to come back to school next fall for a semester of student teaching. In the wake of her season-ending injury, she has decided to take the spring 2018 semester off and return to Ferrum for the entire 2018-19 school year.

Ex-Hokie Hamilton shining in Sun Belt

Johnny Hamilton did not make a big impact when he played for Virginia Tech, but he has become a key player for his new team.

The 7-foot, 230-pound center is averaging 12.4 points as a graduate transfer at Texas-Arlington, which is 12-7 overall and 3-3 in the Sun Belt Conference. He has started every game this season for the Mavericks, who topped the Sun Belt’s preseason coaches poll.

Hamilton ranks sixth in the Sun Belt in rebounds (7.8 rpg) and second in blocks (2.1 bpg).

“With his size and athleticism, that combination makes him a pretty special post player for us,” Mavericks coach Scott Cross said. “Johnny’s athleticism and ability to move, it’s unique for a Sun Belt program.”

Hamilton, a native of Trindad, transferred to Virginia Tech in 2015 from Jacksonville (Junior) College in Texas. He averaged 1.8 points and 7.3 minutes in 17 games as a Tech junior in the 2015-16 season. He averaged 3.7 points in three games for Tech last season before undergoing season-ending thumb surgery in December 2016.

Hamilton returned to Trinidad for a visit after his surgery but had visa issues and was unable to return to Tech until January 2017. Because of the rehab he missed, Hamilton said he needed a second operation last February.

“I had to work really hard to get to this point,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton did not watch Tech games from the team bench upon his return to campus.

“I just wanted to finish up my school,” he said.

Hamilton was granted a medical redshirt, enabling him to play this season. But he no longer wanted to be a Hokie. He graduated from Tech in August, enabling him to have instant eligibility at another Division I school.

“It wasn’t the right fit for me,” Hamilton said of Tech. “I [felt] like I would have more impact playing here.

“I don’t want to be worrying about if someone’s going to take my playing time. So I wanted to come to a school where I could help the team.”

Hamilton said he “left on great terms” with the Tech coaches.

Hamilton said the Tech coaches suggested Texas-Arlington to him. Tech coach Buzz Williams was a Texas-Arlington assistant when Cross played for the Mavericks. Texas-Arlington assistant Greg Young was in Williams’ wedding party.

Cross said the Tech staff recommended Hamilton to him. Cross and his staff were already familiar with Hamilton because they had eyed him when he played in junior college.

Hamilton had 19 points and eight rebounds in the Mavericks’ win over Arkansas State last weekend. He had 18 points and 12 rebounds in a win over South Alabama this month.

“We want him to be a pick-and-roll guy,” Cross said. “If he gets under the defense, the way he jumps, he’s the only one that’s going to able to get [the pass].”

Mark Berman covers Virginia Tech men’s basketball and many other teams at the university. He also helps cover other colleges, including Radford, VMI, Roanoke, Washington and Lee and Ferrum.

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