BEREA - Aaliyah Hampton didn't really know anything about the extremely intense rivalry with Piedmont College when she signed with Berea College last year.
It didn't take her long to find out, though.
"At the first practice, Coach (Trent Milby) said, 'You guys will never beat Piedmont,'" Hampton said. "I was so confused. I was just like, 'What is he talking about?'"
With the help of Hampton, the Lady Mountaineers scored their biggest victory ever over their biggest rival.
The freshman from Hopkinsville scored 23 points and added five steals and four rebounds as Berea College (25-3) defeated the Lady Lions, 66-50, Sunday in the USA South Conference Tournament championship game at the Seabury Center.
Senior Briana Lanham had a double-double - 17 points and 10 rebounds - and Destanie Love added 10 points and seven rebounds.
With the win, the Lady Mountaineers earned a spot in the NCAA Division III Tournament for the first time in school history. The field for the event will be announced on Monday afternoon.
"It's always a battle with them," Berea sophomore Bailee Vanover said of Piedmont College. "We really wanted to win it and we really wanted to win it on our home court."
Berea College joined the USA South Conference in 2017-18 season and advanced to the tournament title game in each of its first two years in the league.
And both times they lost in the championship game - to Piedmont College.
The teams split the two regular-season meetings this year, with the visiting team winning both games.
On Sunday, the road team took control early, again.
The Lady Lions (19-9) raced out to a 10-2 advantage in the championship game and led by as much as nine points in the first quarter.
"I think it was nerves. I was kind of nervous in the beginning," Lanham said. "As a senior, you think, 'What if this is our last game?' I think we kicked it in after halftime. The nerves were gone."
Berea missed 18 of its first 20 field goal attempts, but then started to get things turned around. Lanham hit a three-pointer, then the senior connected on a pair of free throws to give the Lady Mountaineers a 22-20 lead.
The game was tied 27-27 at the half.
"We just knew we had to stay in the game," Milby said. "Just get to halftime with it close. We tied it up somehow. They just battled."
Berea College started to pull ahead behind the outside shooting of Lanham.
The senior hit three three-pointers in the second half.
"Something in my head went back to the LaGrange game when Briana got hot off of a play that we run," Milby said. "I just thought, 'Well, let me call that a couple of times.' It worked. That got us that lead."
The senior hit twice from long range in the third quarter on that play - the second three-pointer put the Lady Mountaineers up 45-37.
She connected again from outside early in the fourth to give Berea a 48-39 advantage.
"I wasn't even looking at the basket," Lanham said. "I was just shooting it and it was going in. I think you just get into the game and it just flows."
Hampton made sure that lead held up.
She had 10 points in the fourth quarter, including a 6-of-8 performance at the free throw line.
Milby said he wanted the ball in the hands of the freshman - who was named the USA South Player of the Year after averaging 20.2 points a game in her first college season.
"Aaliyah did what Alliyah does," Milby said.
The freshman showed no fear.
After the game, she was named the USA South Tournament's Most Valuable Player.
"I just had to step up and have confidence in myself," Hampton said.
The freshman played a big role in a win that finally gave a tremendous group of seniors a title.
Lanham, Bethanie Williams, Nakeisha Greene and Kristin Barnes have a combined record of 91-20 in their four-year career at Berea College. The Lady Mountaineers finished as the runner-up at the 2017 at USCAA National Championship and won three-straight USA South West Division regular-season titles.
And now, they have - at long last - a conference championship.
"They deserved it. They've put a lot of work in," Milby said of the seniors. "They came here when we were starting to build. We weren't even a NCAA Division III full member yet. They had a chance to do something special. I couldn't be more proud."
Berea College's last conference championship was in 2008 when the school played in the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference - an NAIA Division II league.
"It means a lot for everyone," Lanham said.
Barnes had six points and three assists. Greene did not score, but had a team-best 12 rebounds. Vanover had four points and three assists. Leah Parker had four points and Williams had two points.
Berea shot just 30 percent from the field, including 7-of-19 from three-point range, but hit 23-of-28 free throws. Hampton was 10-of-12 at the line. Barnes was 6-of-6 on free throws.
Piedmont shot 31 percent from the field and missed 13 free throws (20-of-33).