Despite being ranked 2nd nationally in field goal percentage, Belmont’s offense was unable to overcome a Clemson team who shot a season-high 10 threes in a 73-68 third round National Invitational Tournament loss.
“It was a great basketball game, it’s a shame for us. They made the plays to win it, I can’t say much else. I don’t think our kids have ever played harder,” Bruins coach Rick Byrd said.
With the win, Clemson earned a spot in the NIT Final Four at Madison Square Garden against the winner of the SMU/California matchup, while Belmont seniors JJ Mann and Blake Jenkins leave Belmont as the winningest senior class in the Bruins’ NCAA era with 109 victories combined.
“JJ has been a leader on this team and a leader on our campus. He’s been a presence on our campus more so than any player we’ve ever had,” Byrd said.
The Tigers opened the contest on a 5-0 run, but were quickly silenced after a Jenkins layup and Mann layup brought the Bruins within one.
A Craig Bradshaw steal and ensuing Jenkins dunk tied the contest at eight apiece after six minutes of play.
“It seems like a blur after the game,” Byrd said. “Craig Bradshaw made play after play after play, created shots for other people. We scrambled around like crazy and got so many second chance opportunities.”
Bradshaw was the night’s leading scorer with 21 points.
Two minutes later, Reece Chamberlain notched the first three of the game for Belmont under the 12-minute mark as the game resembled the slower paced Clemson-Illinois matchup on Sunday as Belmont took a 13-11 lead.
Clemson picked up the pace on a 7-0 run led by sophomore guard Jordan Roper, giving the Tigers a 20-18 lead with under eight minutes to go in the half.
The Tigers continued to roll through the Belmont defense, scoring four more as Belmont found themselves in an 0-9 scoring drought until a Drew Windler field goal brought the Bruins to a 24-20 deficit.
A buzzer-beater three by Chamberlain kept Belmont in contention at the conclusion of the first half as they trailed the Tigers 37-31, shooting 11-for-35 from the field.
Quick threes by Windler and Bradshaw allowed the teams to stand neck-and-neck at 42 points apiece just four minutes into the second half. The tandem continued their sharp shooting with the help of Mann, as the Bruins took a 50-44 lead with under 14 minutes to go.
As the contest inched to the eight-minute mark, Belmont clung to a 58-55 lead until a Demarcus Harrison three allowed the Tigers to tie.
With nearly 2:30 remaining, a Harrison three gave Clemson a brief 67-66 lead until JJ Mann was fouled on the ensuing drive to push the lead back in Belmont’s favor 68-67.
Harrison and Rod Hall combined for five points for Clemson to lead 71-68 with less than a minute and a half to go, enough to seal the deal for the Tigers.
“Because we lost, I don’t think it meant we were the worst team,” Byrd said.