Physical games are nothing new to Belmont, but the rubber match against Tennessee State was perhaps the most physical game the Bruins have played all year.
The top-seeded men’s basketball team advanced to the Ohio Valley Conference finals in an 82-73 win over the No. 4 seeded Tigers.
“TSU is a very good basketball team and I know this is a disappointing night for them. They’re talented and play hard and I like their team,” said coach Rick Byrd.
Both teams scored quickly in the opening minutes of the game as Blake Jenkins started the night off for the Bruins with a steal and dunk within the first 30 seconds that would be quickly answered by a Robert Covington three.
“TSU is extremely physical and extremely athletic. Anytime you go into a lane, you’re going to take a beating,” said senior guard Kerron Johnson.
Tiger guard Jay Harris was the first to score after the game’s first timeout, allowing TSU to surge to a 19-12 lead by the 12-minute mark. Belmont’s Ian Clark was the only offense from behind the charity stripe.
Brandon Baker and Johnson combined for five points as the game inched to the 7-minute mark, keeping the Bruins within eight points of the Tigers.
Jenkins, Johnson and Trevor Noack were able to rally the Bruins on an eight-point run to tie the game back up at 25 with under four minutes left in the half.
A JJ Mann layup combined with a Johnson free throw allowed the Bruins to regain the lead at 28-25 and the momentum with two and a half minutes in the half.
TSU’s Patrick Miller answered with a bucket as the game resumed the intensity and physicality in which it began.
Layups from Noack and Johnson helped secure Belmont’s lead going into the locker room 32-29.
Despite the lead, the Bruins were 0-for-10 from three-point range in the first half. A defense that committed eight steals and collected 20 rebounds kept Belmont alive.
Belmont opened the second half on a 16-9 scoring run, where Ian Clark would score the Bruins’ first threes of the game, giving Belmont a 48-38 lead.
“You gotta find him (Clark). When he’s hot it’s like a 30-foot layup,” Johnson said.
As Belmont held a 59-50 lead eight minutes into the half, Clark and Covington would battle from behind the arc.
Clark continued to shoot well from the three to become Belmont’s leading scorer for the night with 26 points as the Bruins led the Tigers 66-59 with seven minutes to.
“Ian’s six threes in the second half was a huge plus. He’s been in a slump that I’m going to declare has officially ended,” said Byrd.
With less than a minute to go, a Brandon Baker block potentially saved the game as Kerron Johnson was fouled by Covington where he made a free throw and scored a layup on the ensuing drive as Belmont led 76-71.
Foul shots from Mann, Johnson and Clark sealed the deal as Belmont cruised to a 82-73 victory.
The Bruins will play the Murray State Racers tomorrow at 6 p.m. The winner will receive the OVC’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.