For the first time in over a month, Belmont men’s basketball played in front of a rabid student section against Illinois State University on Wednesday night.
At first, it seemed like the Bruins were using that momentum from the students to cruise to a win, taking an early 14-4 lead.
But by the end of the game, the Bruins barely escaped with a 67-60 win that head coach Casey Alexander could only describe as “never pretty.”
But with the foul trouble that the Bruins faced throughout the game, prettiness was the last of Alexander’s concerns.
Sophomore stars Malik Dia and Cade Tyson found themselves with two fouls each in the first half, leaving the Bruins without their top two leading scorers until halftime.
Graduate forward Jayce Willingham and freshman big man Brigham Rogers also struggled with fouls as well.
Coupled with sophomore guard Ja’Kobi Gillespie out with a wrist injury, Alexander had to get creative with his lineups.
“We had the craziest combinations out there,” Alexander said.
What once was a nine-point Belmont began to slowly turn into a 46-37 Illinois State lead.
So how did the Bruins come back to win that game?
Alexander said the answer came down to the team’s ability to get stops in a crucial 19-2 run.
“We put some scores together, but we also got a ton of stops,” Alexander said.
Sure, Dia and Tyson scored in double digits, finishing with 17 and 16 points respectively.
But the defensive performance showcases the team’s improvement over the season, Alexander said.
His team that used to find itself in shootouts can now win even when the offense isn’t clicking.
“They shot 37% with 17 turnovers,” Alexander said. “We’ve been a good defensive team the last 10 games of the season. The numbers bear that out with wins and losses.”
The Bruins will need to carry that stellar defense on Saturday when they travel to Terre Haute, Indiana, to play Indiana State University.
The Sycamores rank in the top 10 in different offensive categories, including effective field goal and 3-point percentage.
And with Indiana State being the favorite in the Missouri Valley Conference, a win on the road could give Alexander and the Bruins another statement win for its claim as the best team in the conference.
This article was written by Ty Wellemeyer