With “Arch Madness,” the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, quickly approaching, Belmont men’s basketball knew it had more work to do before heading to St. Louis.
The Bruins hosted Indiana State University on Wednesday night for senior night festivities, but one fact overshadowed the celebration of Belmont’s veterans.
The matchup versus the Sycamores was a must win for the Bruins if they wanted to secure a top four seed — and a first-round bye in the conference tournament.
After falling behind by as many as 19 points, Belmont hunkered down and fought back to secure the largest comeback in Curb Event Center history as senior Ben Sheppard sank two clutch free throws, stamping the score at 89-88.
“It’s special because we beat a really good team on a night where we didn’t play very well for at least the first twenty minutes,” head coach Casey Alexander said.
Senior night, seeding and conference tournament hopes were all on the line for the Bruins in their second to last regular-season game.
Belmont knew it would have to play at a high level to defeat Indiana State, as the Sycamores brought their seven-game winning streak to Nashville.
Both teams flexed their muscles in the opening minutes of the game.
The Bruins jumped out to an early 11-7 lead thanks to early buckets from freshman Cade Tyson.
Guard Cooper Neese helped the Sycamores steal momentum back as they gained a seven-point lead with Tyson on the bench in foul trouble.
Four subs entered the game for Belmont with hopes of sparking the offense, but instead the game turned into a scoring drought for the Bruins.
Only connecting on one field goal for the next six minutes, Belmont’s offense struggled.
And Indiana State’s attack strengthened.
A three headed monster of Robbie Avila, Xavier Bledson and Jayson Kent helped the Sycamores power their way ahead on 19-3 run.
The visitors continued to pile it on, climaxing at a 54-37 lead at the half.
The Bruins shot just 26.7% from three in the first half as Indiana State was in full control on both sides of the floor.
Belmont desperately needed to get back into the game.
As the Bruins returned to the floor, the theme from behind the arc changed as Sheppard and graduate student Drew Friberg nailed back-to-back deep shots.
Belmont quickly cut into the lead, becoming more comfortable on offense.
“I think all of our guys got a little less tentative, and a little more ‘want to make the play,’” Alexander said.
Senior guard Keishawn Davidson helped the Bruins apply pressure, nailing two 3-pointers, tying the score at 60 with just over 13 minutes left.
Alexander credits the good shooting as a reason his team got back into the game “so fast.” Sheppard and junior Even Brauns energized the crowd with two highlight reel dunks, but there was still work to do.
On defense, Belmont navigated between man and zone defense in attempts to slow down Indiana State.
“We knew we would have to play some zone at some point just because they’re such a team of runs,” Alexander said.
As both teams traded baskets, the Sycamores broke loose, responding with a 9-0 run led by Avila.
Facing an 81-70 deficit with under six minutes left, the Bruins were in desperate need of a spark.
Fortunately, Belmont received nice backing from the student section to keep the comeback dream alive.
“One of those games where you’re thankful you’re at home,” Alexander said. “The crowd was great, they finally lifted us up when we gave them something to be excited about.”
Off the bench, freshman Ja’Kobi Gillespie came in and inserted himself as the energizer bunny for the Bruins.
Slicing and dicing his way to the rim, Gillespie helped Belmont pick up easy buckets as it cut into the lead.
But Indiana State refused to budge.
Guard Courvoisier McCauley, who boasts an unconventional shooting stroke, nailed a deep 3-pointer to grow the Sycamore lead 86-77.
But Gillespie added in another shot from behind the arc and a free throw to shorten it.
On a missed free throw attempt, Friberg secured the rebound and found Davidson.
With excellent vision, he found Sheppard on his way to the basket.
The 6’6 guard laid it up, cutting the lead to three as crunch time approached.
Friberg and Neese traded scores, then Tyson was fouled.
When the freshman stepped to the line, he sank both, cutting the margin to one.
After Trenton Gibson was fouled and missed with 19 seconds left, Gillespie drove the length of the floor but lost the ball.
The ball, however, was found by Sheppard as he was fouled with 2.5 seconds left.
The senior capped off his final night in the Curb by sinking two of biggest free throws in his Belmont career.
“It was pretty storybook for Ben to make those free throws,” Alexander said of Sheppard, who finished with 18 points, nine rebounds and two assists.
With the win, Belmont improved to 20-10 overall and 13-6 in the MVC — good enough to tie with Southern Illinois University for third place in MVC standings.
The Bruins will travel to Cedar Falls, Iowa to close the regular season on Sunday. Alexander knows it’s another huge game.
“They’re all important, but it would really propel us if we could go win a game on the road and put ourselves in a buy situation,” Alexander said. —
VIDEO: The game-winning free throw. Landen Secrest/Belmont Vision
This article was written by Landen Secrest