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Belmont’s Macie Walker, left, and Tishomingo County’s Maura Nunley are former middle school teammates who are now friendly rivals for the area’s best teams.

IUKA Two of the best basketball players in northeast Mississippi play for the two best teams. And those two players just happen to be best friends.

Macie Walker and Maura Nunley grew up playing basketball with and against each other – mostly against, in the name of competitive balance. They were teammates at Iuka Middle School for two years, leading the Lady Chieftains to the Five-County Tournament title as eighth graders.

Both are now high school seniors: Walker at Belmont – the Daily Journal’s No. 1-ranked team – and Nunley at No. 2 Tishomingo County.

“If you watch us, you can definitely tell we grew up together,” Walker said. “Maura can shoot, I can shoot. Maura can drive, I can drive. We can both pass really well. I feel like we both have a lot of passion for the game of basketball, and you can definitely tell that when we play.”

The numbers back up that claim. Walker, a two-time Daily Journal All-Area pick, is averaging 20.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 3.5 steals per game. Nunley’s numbers are very similar: 19.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 4.0 steals.

The two could have continued playing together in high school, but Walker wanted to play for Belmont coach Chris Higginbottom. His wife Ashley is Walker’s second cousin, so she grew up going to Belmont games.

Higginbottom has won more than 400 games and three state championships during his 16 seasons at Belmont. The Lady Cardinals are 21-1 this season.

“One of the reasons I wanted to go there is he has a winning mentality,” Walker said. “He pushes me. He knows how to make me mad, and he knows how to make me play better. He knows everything to say.”

Belmont blood runs in Walker’s veins. Her cousin, Kresta Cain, won a state title with the Lady Cardinals under legendary coach Malcolm Kuykendall, whose granddaughter Abby is a teammate of Walker’s.

Tishomingo County’s tradition is not nearly as strong as Belmont’s, but fifth-year coach Brian Middleton has put the program on an upward trajectory. The Lady Braves (19-2) were 5-24 the season prior to his arrival.

“He’s always pushing you – like always,” Nunley said. “Even when you think you can’t do any more. We have a saying, we say, ‘One percent.’ He’s like, ‘We can get one percent better each day.’”

Nunley and Walker are the best players on the floor most every game. That was very apparent back in middle school.

“They were hard at that level to be able to stop, because they played a lot better than eighth graders,” Higginbottom said. “Both of them were well above the skill level of an eighth grader.”

Those skills have continued to develop to the point that both will play at the next level. Walker has signed with North Alabama, Nunley with Northwest Community College.

They’ll share the court one last time on Feb. 2. Belmont won the first meeting, 50-49. Nunley made a late layup to put the Lady Braves ahead, but the Lady Cardinals won it on a basket by Rayleigh Guin.

“It’s always good competition, but it’s crazy because we grew up together, and now we’ve come this far,” Nunley said. “It’s a pretty neat experience.”

One thing both players want more than anything is a state championship. Belmont’s last title came in 2015, and it lost in the Class 3A state final to Kossuth when Walker was a sophomore.

Class 4A Tishomingo County has never won a state title. It’s been a goal of Nunley’s since she was still at Iuka Middle School to change that.

“When she was an eighth grader, she made the decision, I’m going to TC,” Middleton said. “She said, ‘Coach, let’s win a championship.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ She’s worked so hard and put herself in a position where things like that are possible.”

brad.locke@journalinc.com

Twitter: @bradlocke

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