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Bruins send seniors out with win

The Belmont men’s basketball team sent its five-member senior class out with a 78-71 home win over the Jacksonville State Gamecocks Saturday afternoon.

The Bruins wrapped up their regular season and clinched their first outright Ohio Valley Conference championship with the victory, though the Bruins rarely led by double digits throughout the game.

“I mentioned to our team that it was good that we played a game that was in doubt the whole way through,” coach Rick Byrd said. “That is what we going to see over [at the conference tournament.] A blowout would have been nice, fun and easy. But we probably needed this kind of game more.”

Senior guard Kerron Johnson led the Bruins in scoring with a career-high 26 points and a perfect 12-for-12 game from the free throw line. After a day where the senior class earned its 100th victory and 20th straight home win, he said he was thankful of the support his class has received.

“This has been our home for so long and we have played so well here in front of these fans. This was such a great crowd, better than we expected with everyone on spring break,” Johnson said. “But that’s just the love that these fans have had for us. We just wanted to make sure we ended on a good note.”

In the opening minutes of the half, a 3-pointer from senior Trevor Noack helped the Bruins open on a 5-1 run before a pair of threes from Tarvin Gaines gave the Gamecocks their first lead of the night.

With the score tied at nine with 15:10 remaining, Noack drove to the basket twice for back-to-back layups which sparked a 14-3 Belmont lead.

With 7:16 left in the half, Johnson made a deep pass to Blake Jenkins for a layup that gave the Bruins their largest lead of the day at 26-14.

Behind three straight 3-pointers from Brian Williams and Ronnie Boggs, the Gamecocks cut the Bruins’ lead to just 32-30 with less than a minute to go in the half.

But as time expired, senior Ian Clark scored his first basket when he nailed a 3-pointer from 30 feet away to give Belmont a 38-31 halftime lead.

Belmont made 15 of their 22 shots in the half while holding JSU to just 40 percent in the first half.

For most of the second half, Jacksonville State continued to keep the Bruins’ lead in reach.

“I was impressed with their team. They played hard and are certainly one of the three or four toughest teams to defend,” Byrd said.

The Gamecocks cut the Bruins lead down to two with 14:35 remaining, but six free throws by Johnson, a JJ Mann layup and a Clark 3-pointer extended Belmont’s lead to 58-48 four minutes later.

After a quick Jacksonville State run, senior Brandon Baker scored six straight points for the Bruins to help build a 66-57 lead which kept them firmly in front for the rest of the game.

“That’s what we needed. Every team is going to play the absolutely as hard as they can,” Johnson said. “You are going to have these five, six-point games but you are going to have to know how to win. I think we have done that.

Belmont will have nearly a week to prepare for the OVC Tournament at Municipal Auditorium. The tournament’s top seed will play in the semifinals against an undetermined opponent Friday at 6 p.m.

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