The Belmont Bruins edged past the USC Upstate Spartans on senior night with an 88-79 win at the Curb Event Center Monday night.
Combined with a Mercer loss, the Bruins clinched a share of the Atlantic Sun regular season championship, their third in a row and fifth in the last seven years.
Junior Kerron Johnson led the Bruins in scoring with 19 points and five assists. Four other players scored in double figures, including seniors Drew Hanlen and Mick Hedgepeth, who knew how tough he had to play against a physical Spartan team that defeated the Bruins earlier this season.
“They are very athletic, strong, and blocked a lot of shots. You would jump up and they would move you, and you would land three feet to the side of where you were jumping,” Hedgepeth said. “But you just have to adjust as the game goes on. It was a team effort tonight, and a good grind out victory.”
In the opening minutes of the game, the Bruins went on an 11-2 run, with Hanlen knocking down a 3-pointer and notching two assists with Ian Clark. Upstate forward Torey Craig cut the lead to four with a three pointer and two free throws.
From there, the Bruins extended their lead to 17 points with eight minutes to go in the half, their biggest of the night. In the final two minutes, the Spartans cut the Bruins’ lead to 47-35 at the half.
Both teams were plagued by turnovers, with Belmont committing a total of 20 turnovers in the game. USC Upstate committed 21 in all.
“We didn’t take care of the ball as well as we needed to,” head coach Rick Byrd said. “But I thought we played pretty good defensively, held it on inside, and made some big plays down the stretch. They’re a very good team and you have to earn your victory against them.”
Belmont opened the second half with layups from Jenkins and Hedgepeth to extend the lead 51-37. But the Spartans wouldn’t give up the fight. A 10-2 USC Upstate run eventually cut the lead to 63-60 with seven minutes to go.
Scott Saunders, JJ Mann, and Hanlen were able to make big plays to take back control of the game, however. Johnson hit the final free throws of the game to seal the 88-79 victory for the Bruins.
“Guys that we have to have make those big plays when the game is on the line it’s good for them to do it,” Byrd said. “We haven’t had many close games, so it’s good for us to be in a close game.”
In addition, the game was was the final home game for seniors Saunders, Hanlen, and Hedgepeth.
“I don’t like that this is coming to an end. I love college basketball, it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made to come to Belmont,” Hedgepeth said. “I love the people here, the atmosphere, the basketball family, and I’m just very thankful and lucky to have been a part of it.”
Byrd considered this senior class to be a special one.
“The most special thing about the seniors is they are so unselfish about their playing time, credit they get, points they score,” Byrd said. “They put the team completely ahead of their own concerns, and it’s what I will remember about those three guys.”
Belmont will conclude the 2012 regular season on the road in Georgia this week against Kennesaw State and Mercer.
– Courtney Martinez