Photos: Andrew Hunt
CHARLOTTE, N.C.- No one expected the Belmont men’s basketball team to be in the position it was in, let alone make it to the NCAA tournament to face the University of Virginia in the East region.
Yet with four minutes to play, here were the No. 15 seed Bruins within two points of the No. 2 seed Cavaliers.
Here was the chance to finally pull off the upset after six winless appearances since 2006.
However, it wasn’t meant to be, as the Ohio Valley champions dropped a 79-67 contest to the ACC regular season champions at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, N.C. Friday afternoon.
“Virginia made the winning plays in the last three minutes that we didn’t make, and they deserved to win. That being said, I’m certainly proud of our team’s performance. I’m proud of their fight and grit and determination,” said Belmont coach Rick Byrd.
“This team, again, is not really as good probably as some of the teams we’ve had over the last several years. But it is the best I’m-not-going-to-quit team that I’ve ever had.”
Craig Bradshaw led all scorers with 25 points and nine rebounds, allowing the Bruins to be in contention with 4:33 remaining.
The junior guard drained a pair of treys to pull his team within two points, its closest margin in the second half.
“I felt good about how I was shooting. We were running a good offense and they just made some good stops at the end, made more winning plays in the end,” said Bradshaw.
But after the junior drained his second three, Virginia finished out the game with 11 points at the free throw line to avoid the upset.
“I think they focused more on getting the ball inside, and I think that’s the big answer to the foul shot discrepancy is that they had an inside game that we knew we would struggle with if they went in that direction too much,” said Byrd.
From the opening possession, the Bruins made it known they would give their matchup against the Cavaliers everything they had.
Redshirt sophomore and transfer Taylor Barnette capped off a 7-0 Belmont run with a 3-pointer against his former team in the opening two minutes.
The teams would continue to exchange baskets back and forth as Malcolm Brodgon and Darion Atkins went to work for Virginia and combined for the first 12 points for the Cavaliers.
Belmont regained control of the game behind sophomore Nick Smith, who scored five straight points to give his team the 20-17 advantage.
However, the Cavaliers bounced back with 13 unanswered points as the Bruins went cold for a five-minute stretch. Barnette ended the drought with a jumper with 7:36 to cut the lead to eight points.
The halftime margin would remain at eight for the Bruins after Smith’s layup attempt before the buzzer fell short.
Both teams shot well over 45 percent from the field and went 5-of-12 from 3-point range. Brodgon proved to be the difference-maker for the Cavaliers with 16 points in the first half.
Out of the locker room to start the second half, Belmont found open lanes inside the paint. Freshmen Amanze Egekeze and Mack Mercer combined for first nine points of the second half for the Bruins.
Defensively, Belmont held Virginia to zero points over a five-minute span and a pair of free throws from sophomore Evan Bradds brought the Bruins within three.
Moments later, Bradshaw looked confident from behind the arc and knocked down his pair of threes to bring Belmont within a single possession.
However, Virginia showed why its defense is one of nation’s best and limited Belmont to just two field goals in the final four minutes.
Belmont finished the 2014-15 campaign with a 22-11 record and seven straight wins before its season-ending loss to Virginia.
“We had a real, real chance to win that basketball game and just didn’t get it done. They did and they get to play Sunday, but this team right here’s come a long way and I’m lucky to coach them,” Byrd said.