After getting to host their first post-season tournament game, the Belmont Bruins left the Curb Event Center with an 82-71 win and the opportunity to play either Illinois or Clemson in the third round of the National Invitational Tournament on Tuesday.
“It’s postseason basketball. It may not be the NCAA’s but it certainly is the next thing to it and I told our team after the game, ‘I’m not gonna say I told you so, but I did say that if we get in this tournament and get some wins it’s going to be way better than you have any idea,’ “ said coach Rick Byrd.
While the opening minutes allowed for quick scoring for both teams, Belmont’s defense kept the Bruins under only a two point deficit, forcing five turnovers in the first four minutes.
“I can’t remember a much more exciting night in any facility that we’ve had. It was electric,” Byrd said.
The game would remain tightly contested after Belmont’s Blake Jenkins and RMU’s Lucky Jones battled in the paint as the Colonials clung to a 20-19 lead.
JJ Mann scored eight consecutive points to give Belmont a 27-25 lead with less than seven minutes to go in the half.
Mann finished the game as Belmont’s leading scorer with 25 points, followed by Drew Windler with 18 points and Craig Bradshaw with 17 points.
Field goals by Windler and Bradshaw gave Belmont’s defense a rest, as the Bruins elevated to a 38-32 lead with one timeout to go.
With nearly a minute to go in the half a Bradshaw three allowed Belmont to enter the locker room with a 44-35 lead, shooting 51.5 percent from the field with 12 points off 11 turnovers.
The second half opened up much slower for the Bruins, as a Windler trey provided the only offense for Belmont in the first four minutes.
But, by the 11:20 mark, the offense exploded as Windler, Mann, Evan Bradds and Spencer Turner controlled the ball and take a 59-44 lead.
“There was no way we were going to win that game if we didn’t step up our defense. Anderson and Jones are just phenomenal scorers, so we had to step up our defense if we wanted to win, and we did,” Mann said.
In the next five minutes of play, the Colonials were still down 65-53 as their leading scorer Karvel Anderson notched his fourth foul.
The Bruins were able to manipulate the clock, holding a 69-58 lead with less than two and a half minutes to go as Belmont’s depth proved to be too much for the visiting Colonials.
If Illinois wins on Sunday, Belmont will host despite the Fighting Illini having the higher seed. Illinois’ athletic facility is currently undergoing renovations.