Updated: Sep 24
Belmont’s mantra coming into tournament week was “survive and advance.” Now the Bruins have to win one more game to be crowned the 2021 Ohio Valley Conference champions.
Standing in Belmont’s way is the University of Tennessee at Martin, the No. 1 seed in the tournament bracket field, and one of the three teams Belmont lost to during conference play.
“We only played them one time this season,” Belmont head coach Bart Brooks said. “ I know our team is a lot different now, and I think they [UT Martin] are a lot different. They are going to be better than they were, and we are going to be better than we were. It’s going to be a fun challenge and an exciting matchup, but I know we will be ready.”
Belmont last played UT Martin on Jan. 26, and the Bruins lost by just three, 66-63. Since that point in the season, the Bruins hold a record of 13-1 – tournament games included.
The Bruins’ road to the championship went through Austin Peay State University in the first round, and Murray State University in the tournament semifinal.
Both wins for Belmont came courtesy of outstanding team defense and effort. Against Austin Peay, Belmont held the Governors to just 50 points, 12 less than the 62.4 points per game average. And in the 67-49 win over Murray State, Belmont’s defense held the Racers to their lowest point total of the entire season.
Belmont’s defense is not just good, it’s great. And the Bruins will need a similar defensive performance to take down UT Martin in the biggest game of the season.
“Coach [Kevin] McMillan does a great job with his program,” Brooks said. “They are always competitive, physical, tough and well-coached. And I expect them to be a handful.”
UT Martin’s road to the championship bears complexities that Belmont’s road to the title game hasn’t. The Skyhawks ended the season with star player Chelsey Perry limited due to an injury.
Perry wasn’t available to play in the opening game of the OVC Tournament on Wednesday. Coach McMillian said that he “didn’t like the way she looked going into Wednesday,’ and didn’t want to risk it by going forward.
She did play against Tennessee Tech University in the semifinal, but only for 14 minutes. The OVC player of the year recorded just 10 points and two rebounds in the game, well under her 22.8 average on the year.
However, just having her back on the court was a needed lift in morale for UT Martin.
“It was nice to see Chelsey back out there,” McMillan said. “We are all just excited that she is back out on the floor.”
Though Perry may be limited in the championship game, UT Martin is still an immensely talented offensive team.
In the Skyhawk’s previous game against Tennessee Tech, three players in the starting lineup scored in double-figures: senior Maddie Waldrop, junior Piage Pipkin and sophomore Seygan Robins.
This promises to be Belmont’s toughest defensive test yet.
It’s only fitting that these two teams meet with a championship and an automatic bid to the Big Dance on the line.
Both teams have dealt with their own share of adversity this season. For the Skyhawks, it was an injury to the best player in the conference, and the best player on their roster. And for Belmont, it was a month away from basketball operations right as the team started to find its groove.
Now, with everything on the line, the winner of this game will be the team that faces the in-game adversity and decides to push back.
It’s win or go home. It’s survive and advance.
This article written by Ian Kayanja.