Belmont men’s basketball knew its matchup against Murray State University wasn’t just another regular game.
Making the jump from the Ohio Valley Conference to the Missouri Valley Conference, both teams were looking to add another chapter to the rivalry.
But this season, there’s one caveat.
Former Bruin guard JaCobi Wood transferred to play for the Racers in the offseason, which meant the Curb Event Center would be more hostile than usual for the visitors.
“Our guys could tell before the game that it was different,” head coach Casey Alexander said.
As students packed their section decked in all-red gear, other fans inside the arena quickly began to figure out.
This one meant more.
That pre-game energy, paired with an efficient performance by senior guard Ben Sheppard, helped the Bruins secure a convincing 80-65 over Murray State.
“As far as to Cobi goes, I love that guy. He's always going to be my friend. But on the court, I'm not thinking about that,” Sheppard said. “I'm trying to dominate the game.”
Within the opening minutes of action, the stage was set. Sheppard guarded Wood from the opening tip.
Wood was greeted with boos from Belmont’s student section each time he touched the ball, but it didn’t seem to affect his Racer teammates.
Murray State generated a 10-point margin as the Bruins struggled to find the net early on.
As Belmont searched for baskets, it was Sheppard who ultimately stopped the scoring drought and got the Bruins rolling.
“Coming the game we felt the energy start, the students started pouring in,” Sheppard said.
“Maybe some of the guys felt a little bit nervous at the beginning and that's what sparked Murray early on."
Once the Bruins got settled on offense, their defense improved, which led to a 7-0 run that only increased as the half came to a close.
Sheppard headlined the scoring attack with 10 first half points, but it was junior Even Brauns who truly got the Bruins back into the game.
With seven points coupled with four blocks, Brauns played a key role in allowing the Racers to make only one of their final 12 shots in the first half.
“Even inside really made a difference with his blocked shots,” Alexander said of Brauns, who finished with 6 total blocks. “That helped us turn the corner.”
Headed into the locker room, Belmont secured a 34-30 lead, ending on a 14-2 run.
“When you're getting stops. You score it easier when you get when you're scoring you get stops,” Alexander said. “I believe those things work together.”
After an ideal finish to the first half, the Bruins didn’t trail for the remainder of the game.
Five Bruins ended up in double figures at the end of the game after an impressive scoring display.
Freshman Ja’Kobi Gillespie contributed 12 points and off the bench in a night where he was unintentionally caught in the crossfire of a not-so-friendly student section that frequently chanted “JaCobi sucks.”
Graduate Drew Friberg continued to light it up from behind the arc, draining four of six three-pointers, finishing with 14 points. Brauns added 11 while freshman Cade Tyson put up 12.
Sheppard stole the show down the stretch with a series of acrobatic layups and three pointers en route to a 23-point performance.
The 6’6 swingman was happy with how his teammates responded after a sluggish start, he said.
Senior guard Keishawn Davidson scored his 1,000th career point as the Bruins got their mojo back in the first half, which was one of many highlights of an important win.
As the points piled on, the Bruins moved up on the scoreboard and in the rankings.
Belmont is now tied for first place in the MVC with a 13-6 overall record which includes 6-2 in conference play.
Sitting at third in the conference in scoring, at 18 points per game, Sheppard hopes the hot streak continues for him and his team.
“It’s just confidence. All the guys all the coaches believed in me and think I'm that guy that sets the tone and that's what I'm doing this year,” Sheppard said. “We’re just going to keep playing.” This article was written by Landen Secrest.