Belmont men’s basketball needed a bounce back game to stay at the top of the Missouri Valley Conference.
The last time the Bruins took the court, they were inches away from a victory against Murray State University after a layup from Senior Ben Sheppard fell short as time expired.
With the loss, Belmont entered a four-way tie for the No. 1 spot in the MVC.
A matchup against Illinois State University on Saturday provided them with a perfect opportunity for separation.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve woken up and haven’t been in first place,” head coach Casey Alexander said. “I told our team ‘We’ve got to play like it’ and I think we did.”
Behind an impressive double-double performance from junior Even Brauns, Belmont got back into the win column with a 90-75 victory over the visiting Redbirds.
It didn’t take long for the Bruins to make their presence known inside the Curb Event Center.
Jumping to an early 23-11 lead thanks to a rhythmic offense, Belmont came with energy.
Brauns, who scored 10 points and added eight rebounds in the first half, believes his early firepower sparked from an aggressive mentality.
“For me, that's just been the key the whole season, all the games where I’m locked in an aggressive, and focused. I think a lot of it is just being prepared,” Brauns said. “I think for me it’s understanding the role that I'm in and that most of my scores are going to come from passes from other people, and then taking my time when I get the ball and trying to make the right play with it.”
As the first half progressed, Belmont continued to play together on offense.
In the middle of what would be a 15-0 run, senior EJ Bellinger came in off the bench.
Bellinger immediately drained a three-pointer and collected a flashy assist.
“I really commend him for being ready to go, he works hard and has been here for a long time and his number just hasn’t been called as much as he probably deserves.” Alexander said. “When his number was called, he delivered, that was really big for our team.”
Illinois State attempted to shut down the Bruins’ momentum with a run of its own, but Sheppard silenced it with an and-one.
Entering the locker room with a 43-33 lead, Belmont had full control.
Although the first 20 minutes were full of positives for the Bruins, they shot a dreadful 9.1% from three-point range.
Graduate student Drew Friberg, one of the nation’s top shooters, couldn’t find the basket from deep.
That quickly changed.
After senior Keishawn Davidson sliced his way to the rim on consecutive layups, Friberg turned into a flamethrower.
Knocking down four three-pointers, the Bruin lead exploded.
Freshman Cade Tyson got in on the madness with a three ball of his own along with a highlight reel slam and Belmont soon found itself up 67-48.
But it didn’t stop there.
Brauns emerged again. This time he was spotted above the rim.
The 6’9 big man postered a Redbird defender on one play, then caught an unintentional alley-oop pass from Bellinger for another exclamation-point slam.
“Keishawn was telling me to be aggressive and he was talking to me at halftime telling me to just go up and dunk it,” Brauns said. “It's really all about being ready for the ball. It's not like anything I plan for. It just happened. My body just kind of took over.”
After Brauns’ dunks, the Bruins held off an 11-0 run from the visitors and cruised to the finish line.
Sheppard, who scored 17 points, capped off the night with key layups for icing on the cake.
With the win, Belmont improved to 17-8, resecuring its spot at the top of the MVC with a conference record of 10-4.
And for Brauns, he secured a new season-high in points and rebounds.
He’s becoming a more complete player, and he has “earned” the lead spot in a trio of Belmont big men, Alexander said.
“Most often he gives it to us on the defensive end with shot blocking and energy,” Alexander said of Brauns, who finished with 18 points and 12 rebounds.
“We don't even give him a chance to be a really successful offensive player, but he was today, and he finished around the basket better and his offensive rebounds were important to our success in the first half and overall.”
“Confidence is an amazing thing, in life and in this game,” Alexander added. This article was written by Landen Secrest