Coming off its most difficult non-conference schedule in recent memory, which left the team with a disappointing 4-7 record, Belmont women’s basketball was ready to etch its name into Missouri Valley Conference competition.
And the Bruins did just that on Friday night when they defeated Valparaiso University 74-60 inside the Curb Event Center.
Entering off the bench but leading the way for Belmont was junior forward Madison Bartley, who set the tone early, scoring 14 of her 20 points in the first quarter.
“I thought she just gave us a huge lift and a spark and a great boost that we really needed,” head coach Bart Brooks said. “I thought her teammates carried on what she brought at the beginning.”
Junior guard Destinee Wells also played an impressive game, finishing the night with 19 points and six assists to contribute to the win.
“She’s a great passer, and we all know that, not just her but I know that she’s definitely looking all the time,” Bartley said. “I think it’s good to have confidence from your teammates and know that when they pass it to you, they know you’re going to finish it.”
With the help of Bartley, Wells and sophomore Kilyn McGuff, the Bruins led 22-15 at the end of the first quarter.
The Bruin momentum continued rolling into the second quarter as McGuff picked up a key defensive rebound, which allowed sophomore Tessa Miller to down her first jumper of the game.
After several missed shots, the visiting Beacons looked to catch up with the Bruins as Ali Saunders and Ilysee Pitts each connected with layups.
But after Bartley downed a layup with seven minutes remaining in the half, the Bruins were back in business.
With another layup from Bartley coming a minute later and a 3-pointer from McGuff, Belmont led 31-19 with just under five minutes before halftime.
Valparaiso remained resilient as Oliva Brown and Ava Interrante both downed 3s to keep the Beacons in the game.
The Bruin defense was ablaze, however, as graduate Sydni Harvey came up with an electric block on a 3-point attempt by Interrante.
Offensively, after sophomore Kendal Cheesman made two shots from beyond the arc in back-to-back possessions, Valparaiso knew it had its hands full.
Wells helped Belmont establish a 44-30 lead headed into the locker room after a late layup.
The Bruins' 44 first half points marked a new season high.
Jumping into the second half, Belmont looked to maintain its double figure lead.
After a layup from Wells and a jumper from Pitts, the score remained stagnant for several minutes.
Breaking the scoring drought for the Bruins was McGuff, who downed a layup to make the score 48-32 with 6:27 remaining in quarter three.
From there, the Beacons began to catch fire.
With 3s from Interrante and Brown and a field goal from Leah Earnest, Valparaiso narrowed the deficit to just eight with four minutes remaining in the quarter.
But the Bruins lived at the line from there as the Beacons continued fouling players in the paint.
Belmont made all 10 of its free throws for the remainder of the quarter.
When the third quarter buzzer sounded, the Bruins led 60-45.
With a 15-point lead, the Bruins just needed to sustain for the last 10 minutes of play.
And they achieved this task by spreading the wealth as a variety of Bruins got a piece of scoring action.
With buckets from Wells, Bartley, McGuff, Miller, Harvey and junior Blair Schoenwald, the game ended in Belmont’s favor.
With the win, Belmont now stands with an overall 5-7 record and 1-0 in conference play.
“Good to start conference play obviously with a win. You want to protect your home court in the conference and that’s a big victory for us,” Brooks said. “Excited to get the win.”
After earning a victory in their first MVC game, the Bruins are now fully in their in-conference schedule.
Belmont will open the new year inside the Curb on Sunday afternoon as it faces off against the University of Illinois Chicago. This article was written by A.J. Wuest.