The Belmont men’s basketball team became regular-season conference champions behind a strong defense in a 73-43 rout of SIU-Edwardsville Wednesday night at the Curb Event Center.
With the win, the Bruins earned the No. 1 seed heading into the Ohio Valley tournament next week. But coach Rick Byrd said more still needs to be done before postseason play.
“The last three games have been pretty good defensive games, but we’ve still got some business to do Saturday afternoon to win it outright,” he said.
Four Bruins scored 10 or more points on the night, including Blake Jenkins, who completed his third career double-double with 17 points and 11 out of the team’s 39 rebounds.
“Blake had one of his best games of the year,” Byrd said. “He needs to be a factor in the game. He needs to have double-figure rebounds, he needs to have several offensive rebounds, he needs to be the shutdown defender he can be.”
Early in the game, the Bruins pulled ahead with a 7-0 run by JJ Mann, Jenkins and Kerron Johnson until Cougars guard Kris Davis sank a three from the top of the key.
“We’re kinda undersized this year so we try to use our speed and our toughness on the defense to lead to an easy transition to the offense to get out and find open shooters like Ian Clark and Kerron,” Jenkins said.
Five minutes in, all five of Belmont’s starters had scored, giving the Bruins a 16-5 lead.
SIUE finally broke into double digits nearly 10 minutes into the game with a basket from Tim Johnson. The points were answered by five Ian Clark points, allowing Belmont to have a comfortable 31-16 as eight minutes remained in the half.
Davis and Charles Joy trimmed the Cougars’ deficit to 11 with less than a minute to go, giving way to a 39-28 Belmont halftime lead.
Belmont’s first half defense led by Jenkins and Mann held SIUE to a single offensive rebound and 17 rebounds total.
To open the second half, SIUE started on a 5-0 run from Johnson and Mark Yelovich that was answered by Kerron Johnson, allowing Belmont to hold a 45-35 lead with 16 minutes left in the game.
For a moment, Byrd felt the game was in jeopardy.
“I looked at my staff and said, ‘They’re going to beat us!’,” he said.
The Cougars remained scoreless for the next eight minutes as the Bruins were able to complete a 18-0 run led by Jenkins to re-extend Belmont’s lead 63-35 thanks to continued opportunities created by defense and a technical foul called on the SIUE coach Lennox Forrester.
“I thought we played well. We played really hard in the second half defensively and they helped us some – they didn’t make some shots, but we didn’t give them very many good ones,” Byrd said.
A three by junior Holden Mobley with less than a minute left sealed the deal for Belmont as they improved to 13-2 in conference play.
Belmont will play their last game before the OVC Tournament at noon Saturday as they host Jacksonville State. The game will be nationally televised on ESPNU.