When Belmont and Indiana State University played for the first time on Feb. 22, it ended with an emotional, come-from-behind victory on senior night for the Bruins.
This time around in St. Louis, the stakes were much higher.
And the Sycamores got their payback against the Bruins with a 94-91 victory, advancing to the tournament semifinals.
“It’s a tough one obviously, but for them to score 94 points and for us to have a chance to win says a lot about our team,” Alexander said. “So, I’m really proud of the way we fought.”
The atmosphere inside the Enterprise Center had that big-fight-feel to it with both Bruin and Sycamore fans remaining loud throughout the game.
The first half seemed to be back-and-forth as neither team was able to establish a dominant run until Indiana State’s Xavier Bledson hit a pair of 3-pointers to make the score 26-17 in the Sycamore’s favor.
But the Bruins didn’t fold under pressure, responding with their own run to tie the score at 30 after buckets from freshman Cade Tyson and senior Keishawn Davidson.
Behind the duo of Robbie Avila and Cameron Henry, the Sycamores slowly built a nine-point lead that the Bruins cut to 49-44 after freshman Ja’Kobi Gillespie hit a deep three with time expiring in the half.
In the first 20 minutes, Tyson led the Bruins in scoring with 12 points while Davidson and Gillespie each contributed eight.
One missing piece for the Bruins was senior Ben Sheppard, who found himself in foul trouble early in the half, adding only three points headed into the locker room.
For the Sycamores, Henry had 18 while both Avila and Sycamores star Courvoisier McCauley scored seven.
To start the second half, Indiana State sharpshooter Cooper Neese and Davidson had a scoring battle.
Neese torched the Bruins with four consecutive 3-pointers, but Davidson responded with 8 points of his own to keep the game within reach.
But one thing became evident as the game progressed.
It was impossible for the Bruins to counteract Neese’s stellar shooting.
With 12 minutes left in the half, Neese had already connected on six 3-pointers, helping the Sycamores grow their lead to 72-59.
Head coach Casey Alexander quickly came up with a plan to contain Neese’s scoring.
He assigned Sheppard, who was named a member of the MVC All-Defensive team, to guard Neese.
He also implemented a “small ball" lineup by inserting graduate forward Drew Friberg at the center position, giving the Bruins some much needed floor spacing.
Soon, the Sycamores’ lead was cut to two.
With every basket, the tension and the roar of the crowd grew.
In the final minutes, the game was an exciting and back-and-forth affair.
The atmosphere and action inside the transformed St. Louis Blues arena reflected that of a championship level game.
Belmont finally seemed to gain the upper hand after Sheppard hit a contested three to give the Bruins an 89-88 lead.
Immediately after, Neese continued to show that he had a deep range deadeye, giving the Sycamores a 91-89 lead.
After an empty possession by Belmont, all the Sycamores needed was free throws to ice the game.
With the scoreboard at 93-91, Henry missed, allowing for the Bruins to have a chance to tie or take the lead.
However, the Bruins seemed to rush their opportunity, and they appeared to ruin their chance at a victory.
Henry found himself at the line yet again with a chance to put the game away, but he only made one free throw, leaving the door open for Belmont.
As time expired, Tyson’s heave from half-court fell short.
For the Sycamores, Neese led with 33 points, shooting 9-11 from the three-point line while Henry added 25.
Tyson led the Bruins with 24 points while Sheppard and Davidson had 19 and 18 respectively.
Alexander was frustrated with the loss but was happy the Bruins could keep competing despite Indiana State’s high-scoring offense.
Despite the early exit in the tournament, Alexander remains optimistic for the future of Belmont basketball.
“We’ve got a much better perspective of where we need to go. We clearly have improvements to make, and we’ll be determined to do so,” Alexander said. “We’ve got everything we need to be the best team in the Missouri Valley Conference, and we’ll get there sooner rather than later.”
This article was written by Ty Wellemeyer.
Photo by Landen Secrest.