NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Belmont has turned its attention from the NCAA tournament to Madison Square Garden.
J.J. Mann scored 25 points and the Bruins beat Robert Morris 82-71 on Friday night to reach the third round of the NIT.
Mann, the Ohio Valley Conference player of the year, made seven of eight free throws in the final 1:21 to finish off the short-handed Colonials. Belmont’s last 11 points came at the foul line, where the Bruins shot 24 of 25 for the game.
Belmont, the Ohio Valley regular-season champion, will play the winner of Sunday’s game between Illinois and Clemson with a trip to the NIT Final Four on the line.
”We’re in the thick of it,” Mann said. ”Playing in Madison Square Garden would be the ultimate goal and there’s nothing to be ashamed of being in the NIT at all.”
Drew Windler added 18 points for the fifth-seeded Bruins (26-9), and Craig Bradshaw scored 17.
Karvel Anderson led No. 8 seed Robert Morris with 23 points. Lucky Jones had 15 and Anthony Myers-Pate 14.
Robert Morris (22-14) had only seven players available but led by as many as six points in the first half. Belmont trailed 25-19 before reeling off 14 consecutive points in a span of 4:37.
Mann scored the first eight in that spurt with two 3-pointers and a jumper. He credited the Belmont defense with sparking the run – the Bruins forced 11 first-half turnovers.
”Really, it was just our defense that created offense, and we knocked down some shots,” he said.
The Bruins were upset by Eastern Kentucky in the Ohio Valley championship game, keeping them out of the NCAA tournament. Belmont had made three straight NCAA appearances and earned six bids in the past nine years.
”We’re totally over (that) now,” Mann said.
Belmont coach Rick Byrd said his team and its fans have gotten excited about two NIT victories, including a first-round win over Green Bay.
”It’s postseason basketball. It may not be the NCAA, but certainly is the next thing to it,” Byrd said. ”I told our team … that if we get in this tournament and get some wins, it’s going to be way better than you thought going in.”
The Colonials, who beat top-seeded St. John’s in the opening round, were down 44-35 at halftime. They pulled within six points twice but trailed by double digits for much of the second half, partially due to fatigue.
”We did wear down some toward the end, but credit our guys. We continued to fight, regardless of the situation,” Robert Morris coach Andrew Toole said.