DURHAM, N.C. – When Coach Rick Byrd called his players into a huddle with 14 minutes remaining in the game, he knew something had to change.
At that point, the Bruins were down 16 points to the Duke Blue Devils, and the sixth-ranked home team was on a 12-0 run. By then, Belmont had failed to make a three-pointer in the game.
“I just challenged our guys by saying that their guys are playing better than you are,” Byrd said. “They’re making shots. They’re making plays. That was me just kind of throwing something out there to try to get them motivated or mad at me or something.”
In the next possession, Ian Clark tried to erase that margin with a missed shot. The shot was rebounded by Mick Hedgepeth, and led to Drew Hamblen making his first points of the game — a three-pointer.
The comeback was on.
It was not a rally the Bruins would complete, however, as Duke emerged the 77-76 winner after a feverish second half by both teams.
“I thought from that point on, we were an awfully good team, a determined team, and a team that played with purpose.” Byrd said.
The Bruins kept the game close in the final minutes, cutting to Blue Devils lead to one possession multiple times. Led by senior Drew Hamblen, who scored 12 points on the night, Belmont stayed in the game until the final seconds, when after a Andre Dawkins three-pointer as the shot clock nearly expired, giving Duke a four-point lead with nearly twenty seconds to go.
“I would take that shot again any time,” Byrd said. I would take it when it left [Dawkin’s] hand as the defensive possession because if he misses, then we get the ball and a chance to win the game at Duke,”.
The Bruins ended the game with a contested Clark three-pointer to cut the lead to one as time expired.
“It was a heck of a game, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “It was a game I was worried about since I knew we were playing them.”
After Belmont took an early lead, the Blue Devils took control of the game, and led by nine points at the half The Bruins had failed to make a three-point shot by then, and “played a little scared defensively,” Byrd said.
“It was very poor. We rushed things. We lost our poise, and yet we fought.” he said.
The fight led to a second-half balance for the team. Kerron Johnson led the Bruins’ scoring with 15 points, and five players scored more than ten points by the end of the game.
In the postgame press conference, Krzyzewski, who gained his 901st win with the victory, complimented the Bruins’ size, depth, and maturity. It was the second time in more than three years the Belmont lost to Duke by one point. In 2008, The Blue Devils defeated the Bruins 71-70 in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
He also compared the 2011-12 team to a Butler squad Duke nearly lost to in the 2010 NCAA national championship game.
“I just think they’re one of the better teams. I think they can play against anybody,” Krzyzewski said.
Byrd, despite the narrow loss, felt his team made a statement against the Blue Devils Friday night.
“If that’s a top-ten team, and we went on the road in their gym and played them to one point, then we can be a top 25 team for sure. I hope they’ll believe that, and I’m sure proud of them,” he said.