SALT LAKE CITY – For Belmont coach Rick Byrd, Thursday night’s 81-64 loss to the Arizona Wildcats was “all pretty simple.”
“Arizona was the better team.”
The much-hyped senior backcourt duo of Kerron Johnson and Ian Clark combined for 43 points on the night, but the Belmont Bruins still fell by 15 points to the sixth-seeded Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 64 in Salt Lake City.
“We really struggled offensively, and I think their defensive game plan was really good. We struggled to get shots in the first half,” Byrd said. “Our rebounding numbers are not good. It’s crying over spilt milk.”
The Wildcats jumped to a 14-4 lead eight minutes into the contest with a two from forward Brandon Ashley and a three from guard Jordin Mayes.
“It’s human nature to get down team-wise, so we tried to pick it back up early in the first half and late in the second half,” Clark said.
A Kerron Johnson three sparked Belmont’s offense as a Blake Jenkins dunk and five points from Clark brought the Bruins within two points of the lead early.
Mark Lyons returned the favor with seven points of his own, but Clark held his own as Belmont trailed by five with three minutes to go in the half.
“In terms of the score we outplayed them and got it back manageable, and then it went from six to 12 or something. You just don’t want to be that far down,” Byrd said.
Arizona, however, quickly jumped back to a 29-20 lead. A jump ball gave Belmont the possession late in the half, but they were unable to capitalize as Brandon Ashley completed a layup and gave the Wildcats a 32-20 halftime lead.
While they only shot 15 percent from the perimeter, the Bruins were able to score 12 points off of 10 Wildcat turnovers in the half. Arizona also had 27 rebounds compared to Belmont’s nine.
“I was more impressed with their team tonight than I was scouting them. They were focused and I think they play that way they can beat a lot of people,” Byrd said.
Belmont quickly fell to a 15-point deficit in the first three minutes of the second half as two JJ Mann threes were the only response the Bruins could muster as Brandon Baker racked up his fourth personal foul.
Johnson and Clark were able to combine for 9 points in the next nine minutes, but Belmont still found themselves behind 53-36 as they struggled to combat an Arizona team that was shooting 51 percent from the field.
Thanks to back-to-back threes from Clark and Mann, Belmont came back to within 11 with less than 10 minutes to go. But it wasn’t enough as the Bruins left unable to notch their first NCAA postseason victory in their sixth try.
Nevertheless, Byrd was optimistic about his team’s accomplishments this season after losing three major contributors the year before.
“It’s hard today, but I wouldn’t have given them a chance,” Byrd said, “We lost three all-conference players off of last year’s team, and I thought we could have a pretty good team.”