Luke Smith blazes Belmont’s trail back to the OVC Championship for its third straight season
Updated: Sep 24, 2022
A shot at redemption is in order after the Bruins fought their way back to the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament with a 72-69 semi-final win against the Jacksonville State Gamecocks.
“It was not pretty by any stretch of the imagination but I love the way our team competed. I thought we played hard from beginning to end,” said head coach Casey Alexander.
Junior Luke Smith had one of his best games of the season after many quiet weeks from behind the arc. Smith put up a game high 24 points going 8-11 from the field and putting up six threes that much needed separation down the stretch, a sight he himself was very pleased to see.
“It’s great to finally see a few shots go down, personally I’ve been struggling a little and my coaches and my teammates have put confidence in me,” said Smith.
His shot was set up by fellow junior Grayson Murphy many times throughout the night. Murphy put up his sixth double double of the season with 14 points and 12 assists, making Smith’s job a little easier.
“Playing with Grayson makes everything so much easier,” said Smith. “He has the best vision out of anyone I’ve ever played with. I just try to move and stay open because I know he’s going to find me. We play well off each other and he’s someone I really enjoy playing with.”
Another sight Smith enjoyed seeing in their second postseason win was junior Nick Muszynski’s improvement from the quarterfinals to the semifinals. Muszynski, who is coming off a fresh pre-tournament injury, put up a 13 point 10 rebound double double and is looking much better as the Bruins head into the deciding game of the tournament.
“With that type of injury it’s more about trust than really how it feels, in the first game he was trying to feel it out, this game he got going a little more and started to trust his ankle a little more,” said Smith.
Muszynski didn’t put up the big scoring numbers the OVC is used to, however, his exceptional defensive performance in the post helped the Bruins churn out a win. He held the Gamecocks’ starting center to just two points while creating contact to foul him out before he could find momentum.
Muszynski’s court awareness was on full display after he quickly moved from the outside to get low and grab a rebound, a play that fouled his matchup out, and opened the floor for his team.
Though the Bruins held the lead for a total of 35 minutes throughout the game, their defense was uncharacteristically sloppy. Early fouls in the second half awarded the Gamecocks an early advantage at the charity stripe.
“It was really a strange game in that regard, that hasn’t happened to us all season,” said Alexander. “We give credit for being the aggressor on the offensive end, but we certainly have to defend better.
That mixed with their inability to make necessary shots down the stretch allowed JSU to get within two at just half a minute left in the game. Luckily, Belmont’s seasoned players maintained both composure and aggressiveness in the post.
Junior Tate Pierson grabbed the rebound and the foul to send himself to the line at the other end of the floor.
Though he only knocked down one of his free throws, he brought Belmont’s lead to three, forcing JSU’s hand to make a three or bust. Pierson ended the night with 10 points and four rebounds in the best postseason scoring performance of his career.
“I do think our team has a lot of maturity. We would have loved to have finished better, but at the same time we never panicked. The most important part of the game – coaching, playing anything – is to play the next game and we’re playing tomorrow.”
Tomorrow night, the Bruins will take on the winner of two and three seeded Eastern Kentucky and Morehead State respectively, each who handed Belmont its only conference losses of the season. Any way you slice it, it will be a rematch to remember as Belmont takes its last stride towards redemption.
This article written by Julieann Challacombe. Photo courtesy of the OVC.