For Belmont men’s basketball, the U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam was more than a vacation to the Caribbean.
It was an opportunity for redemption.
After freshman Cade Tyson’s buzzer beater in the season opener against Ohio University, the Bruins struggled over their next two games.
After falling to Furman University and Lipscomb, Belmont headed down to the islands searching for a chance to get back in the win column.
Game One: Tarleton State University The Bruins faced off against Tarleton State University in the first round on Friday night.
But the team couldn’t find any offensive rhythm due to Tarleton State’s aggressive defense.
Taking advantage of the situation, the Texans converted mistakes and early turnovers into points.
Freshman Ja’Kobi Gillespie found himself in foul trouble early, causing Belmont to play the early parts of the game without a natural point guard.
With senior point guard Keishawn Davidson still recovering from injury, the Texans capitalized on Belmont’s lack of guard depth, taking a 44-31 lead at halftime.
The Bruins slowly clawed their way back into the game as Gillespie controlled the offense. This allowed senior Ben Sheppard more opportunities to score.
But fouls crippled Belmont's chances at a comeback.
Tarleton State shot 35 free throws in the second half, crushing any chance for the Bruins to establish offensive momentum.
The Bruins cut the deficit to six points several times, but Tarleton State secured the 89-81 victory.
With the loss, Belmont found itself in the consolation bracket with a chance of finishing in fourth place at best. Game Two: George Mason University
Belmont’s next challenge came on Saturday versus George Mason University.
The beginning of the matchup with the Patriots seemed to be a rehash of the game against Tarleton State as the Bruins found themselves down 8-0 just two minutes into the game.
But the team fought back thanks to Sheppard scoring some crucial points.
Fouls still plagued the Bruins, however, as Sheppard was forced to sit out the last ten minutes of the first half.
From there, head coach Casey Alexander had to get creative.
Using a 2-3 zone, the Bruins held the Patriots scoreless for the last eight minutes, going into halftime with a 30-26 lead.
Alexander made the move out of desperation but was pleased with the outcome.
“We had to go to it by necessity, but it worked well,” Alexander said. “The guys played really hard, and we were able to build confidence because we got some stops.”
The second half was back-and-forth with both teams refusing to give in.
George Mason would go on a big run, exciting its bench and fans.
Belmont would then return with its own run to excite its supporters, including President Dr. Greg Jones in attendance.
Down 57-55, Sheppard scored five straight points to give the Bruins the 60-57 lead.
Things slowly became uncomfortable for Belmont as the Patriots cut the deficit to 64-62.
All the pressure landed on Gillespie.
He needed to sink two free throws to extend the lead to four.
Hitting both, he gave Belmont the 66-62 win.
Overall, Gillespie finished with 13 points and six steals as Sheppard finished with 24 points, becoming the 22nd Bruin to join the 1,000-point club in Belmont’s NCAA Division I history.
Game Three: Howard University
In order to clinch a fourth-place finish in the tournament, Belmont needed to defeat the Howard University Bison on Monday afternoon.
Everything seemed to click for the Bruins to start the game.
A trio of threes from Sheppard and graduate forward Drew Friberg made the score 14-4.
From there, Sheppard scored nine points, contributing to a Belmont 21-5 run.
By the end of the first half, Belmont led 47-34 with the help of 18 points from Sheppard.
Howard started the second half with some spark, seeking to stage an amazing comeback.
But Sheppard, Gillespie, Friberg and junior Even Brauns helped further widen the gap, executing off Howard turnovers.
A Sheppard three made it a 77-62 game with six minutes left.
The Bruins continued to press and only strengthened the offensive onslaught. This allowed freshman walk-on Jake Dykstra to see the court and score the first four points of his college career.
The Bruins finished with a dominating 96-73 win, securing fourth place in the Paradise Jam.
Four Bruins finished with double figures: Sheppard with a season-high 27 points, Friberg with 14 and Gillespie and Brauns with 13 each.
Coach Alexander was pleased with his team’s intensity shown during the game.
“It was definitely our best performance. We were much more solid on both ends of the floor for 40 minutes,” Alexander said. “I felt like our guys helped us get off to such a hot start.”
Belmont will look to continue its hot streak on Nov. 27 when it travels to Atlanta to face off against Georgia State University.
This article was written by Ty Wellemeyer.