NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The resume might relate that Belmont has already done enough this season to play in the NCAA Tournament.
Just the Ratings Percentage Index ranking of 23rd in the country alone suggests the Bruins are worthy of a third-straight NCAA tourney appearance and sixth in eight seasons.
But having come from once dominating the one-bid Atlantic Sun Conference to the Ohio Valley Conference this season, Belmont is seasoned in playing league tournament games of the do-or-die nature.
One of those hurdles came here Friday night in the semifinal round of the OVC Tournament at Municipal Auditorium. Belmont gutted out a tough 82-73 win over Tennessee State, which split the regular-season series with the Bruins.
Saturday at 6 p.m., Belmont (25-6) will face defending tournament champion Murray State (21-9), an 81-73 winner over Eastern Kentucky (24-9) in the other semifinal match. The OVC’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament is on the line.
Win and get in, that’s the sure way for Belmont to return to the form of March Madness to which they have grown accustomed.
“People talk about us getting an automatic bid,” Belmont senior guard Kerron Johnson said after scoring 23 points against TSU. “But this is win or go home for us. That’s the way we have prepared every single day from day one.
“Coming from the A-Sun, you just get in that mindset that this is it. This is your chance to make history with this program. We want to take it into our own hands and not leave it up to chance.”
That’s what they have done each of their six previous NCAA berths claimed by Atlantic Sun tourney titles. But moving to the OVC, winning the regular-season title in its first year, and having the tournament played in its hometown have raised the ante for a program that has continually grown on the national basketball psyche to be perceived as a rising mid-major.
Belmont coach Rick Byrd credits this senior class that also includes guard Ian Clark, the OVC co-Player of the Year who had a game-high 26 points Friday night, for taking the program to even greater heights. That three-year run of NCAA tourney berths from 2006-08 introduced the country to the program at the private Nashville school that once was a NAIA national power before moving to NCAA Division I in 1996.
“This senior class and the guys who graduated a year ago have taken what those 2006-08 teams did and made us much more nationally competitive,” said Byrd, who has posted a 570-290 record in 27 seasons at Belmont. His 662 victories in 32 overall coaching seasons rank him seventh among Division I active coaches.
“But even with those teams, no one was talking about at-large bids,” he added. “We weren’t getting Top 25 votes. These guys for three years now have had us being discussed as one of the better 40 or 50 basketball teams in the country. This class has done that for us.”
After losing to crosstown rival Tennessee State in their previous meeting, the Bruins knew they were in for a tussle with the Tigers (18-15), who posted their second-straight winning season and are hoping for a berth in one of several postseason tourneys other than the NCAA’s.
After missing all 10 of its 3-point shots and going through a stretch of missing 11 straight shots in the first half, Belmont turned a shaky 3-point halftime lead into an 11-point lead, it largest of the game, with an 11-3 run to open the second half.
But the Tigers answered. Trailing by eight points midway through the second half, senior forward Kellen Thornton put the Tigers on his sturdy 6-foot-7, 243-pound frame by scoring 12 of his team’s next 14 points – including a pair of 3-pointers — to keep TSU close down the stretch. He finished with team highs of 22 points and 12 rebounds.
Still, Belmont would not allow the Tigers closer than four points, pulling away eventually as Clark made 6-of-10 3-pointers in the second half and the Bruins made 7 of 8 free throws in the game’s final minute.
“Just leaving the locker room, (we were) very disappointed with how it turned out,” TSU coach Travis Williams. “But you have to give credit to Belmont. They came out and played extremely well in the second half. (They) came out and made some shots. Some of their key guys made key plays.”
Belmont shot 55.6 percent in the second half after shooting only 36.4 percent the first 20 minutes. TSU committed 21 turnovers and made only five of six foul shots.
“You’re not going to beat a good team with that many turnovers,” Williams said.
In the first half, Belmont uncharacteristically missed all 10 of those 3-point attempts after entering the game 10th in the nation by averaging 8.7 treys per game. The Bruins’ cold shooting beyond the arc was reminiscent of the last time the teams played, which resulted in the TSU victory. In that game on Feb. 14, the Bruins had their worst 3-pointing shooting game in three seasons, making only 5-of-26 attempts for 19 percent.
TSU used a 9-0 run midway through the first half to open a 21-12 lead, thanks in large part to the Bruins missing 11 shots in a row during one stretch. But Belmont finally started finding the range and stepped up defensively, forcing six of 13 first-half Tigers turnovers and multiple bad shots during a 16-4 run of its own that included an 11-0 scoring spurt.
Halfway through that Belmont run, Clark picked up his second foul with 5:15 remaining before halftime. But the Bruins didn’t miss a beat with Clark on the bench, continuing the late surge before settling into a 32-29 edge at intermission.
In the nightcap victory over third-seeded Eastern Kentucky, No. 2 seed Murray State, last year’s OVC tourney champ and NCAA representative, got 29 points from senior guard Isaiah Canaan, the OVC’s co-Player of the Year.
In their only meeting this season, Murray State beat Belmont, 79-74.
UT-Martin, Tech advance
On the women’s side of the tournament, OVC regular-season champion and top-seeded Eastern Illinois (19-11) fell 71-69 to fourth-seeded UT-Martin (18-14) in Friday’s semifinal round. The teams split two games during the regular season, although the Lady Skyhawks had convincingly beaten EIU 82-62 in their previous meeting on Feb. 28.
UT-Martin advances to Saturday’s championship game at 1:30 p.m. against No 2 seed Tennessee Tech, a 61-57 winner over third-seeded Belmont in Friday’s other semifinal match.
“I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know what really happened,” UT-Martin coach Kevin McMillan said after his team erased a six-point deficit in the final 3:38 of the game. “We were down six, and I thought we were about done.”
UT-Martin was led by its all-OVC backcourt of junior guards Heather Butler with 24 points and Jasmine Newsome with 23. Newsome was also the league’s player of the year. Eastern Illinois got 20 points from senior forward Mariah King.
In the other women’s semifinal, Tennessee Tech (19-11) picked up its third win of the season over OVC newcomer Belmont (18-13). The winners got 14 points and 13 rebounds from sophomore forward T’Keyah Williams. Belmont was led by senior guard Katie Brooks with 16 points.