Despite taking the Ohio Valley Conference regular season title, the Belmont Bruins were unable to give senior guard and OVC player of the year JJ Mann his fourth consecutive conference title in a 79-73 loss against the Eastern Kentucky Colonels.
“It stinks. I appreciate what they’re going through. When you get a taste of it, there’s nothing like it. It hurts,” coach Rick Byrd said.
With the win, EKU notched the OVC’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
The Bruins got off to an icy start at best, as the only offense they mustered came from a Craig Bradshaw dunk four minutes into the contest after EKU aced four consecutive threes.
“We didn’t shoot the ball like this team needs to to win games,” Byrd said.
Mann kept Belmont alive with a couple of threes, but EKU’s Glenn Cosey had notched four threes by the 7:36 mark to give the Colonels a 28-14 advantage.
Mann led the team in scoring with 18 points on the night and landed a spot on the OVC All-Conference team.
Back to back treys by Caleb Chowbay and Drew Windler combined with Mann and Reece Chamberlain’s ability to draw the foul brought the Bruins to within eight points.
That lead carried through to the locker room as Mann led the Bruin offense with 12 points, while Cosey led the Colonels with 13 points.
Corey Walden opened up the half with a quick seven points but Windler and Mann answered with layups of their own, keeping Belmont within striking distance.
Evan Bradds led the team on both sides of the ball for the next portion of the game, as EKU clung to a four point margin with 11 minutes left in the half.
Bradds notched a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds.
A Mann breakaway steal and EKU foul gave Chamberlain the opportunity to tie the contest at 52 apiece with 6:30 remaining.
“I didn’t feel we were bad on offense, in fact, I think we handled it pretty good,” Byrd said.
Walden and Cosey continued to lead the Colonels for the next four minutes, regaining the lead 65-61.
The remainder of the contest stayed a battle between Bradds and the tandem of Cosey and Walden, taking the spotlight that Kerron Johnson and Ian Clark held during the finals last season.
Belmont finishes the season 24-9, and 14-3 in OVC play and will be eligible for the NIT.
“It’s tough, that’s all I’ve known. The NIT is not the worst thing in the world,” Mann said.
Because of Belmont’s season performance, Byrd believed the team would have gotten the opportunity to play in the NIT based on RPI even if the Bruins had not won the OVC regular season title.
“We don’t need to act any other way than grateful,” Byrd said. “We’ve won one post-season game in the College Insider tournament, but who knows what this can do and what this guy can help lead us to in the future.”