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SEASON RECAP: Men’s basketball shows flashes of big success in final OVC season

Updated: Apr 22, 2022

Falling short in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament, Belmont’s season  came to an abrupt end March 15, and the Bruins look to break down and build back up for what next one holds.

In the 2021-22 season, the team built on its previous success and made the most of its last year with graduate students Grayson Murphy, Luke Smith, Caleb Hollander, Tate Pierson and Nick Muszynski, who brought a depth of experience to the team.

Despite losing its final two contests, the Bruins’ year was filled with a plethora of highlights and awards, leaving the team with lots to look forward to but also much to miss with the exit of a handful of impactful players as five age out and one, freshman standout Will Richard, enters the transfer portal.

Returning 97% of offensive production, the Bruins dove into one of the toughest non-conference schedules in program history, beginning in the first matchup of the season.

Belmont dropped its first game on the road at Ohio University but went on to rattle off three straight wins, including a nail-biting victory over Furman University at home in the Curb Event Center.

In that game, Murphy passed the 1,000-point mark for his career.

“I’ll tell you what, that was one heck of a game,” Alexander said after the 95-89 overtime victory against the Paladins. 

Following that winning streak, the Bruins took a trip to Baton Rouge to face the Louisiana State Tigers and came up short.

Over Thanksgiving break, the team gained quality experience and posted several great performances in the ESPN Events Invitational at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

While tacking up victories over Iona College and future Missouri Valley Conference opponent Drake University, the Bruins received praise from legendary commentator Dick Vitale.

The @BelmontMBB r going to the finals of @ESPNEvents Invitational as they give @IonaGaelsMBB their 1st L after starting the season (6-0 )72-65! — Dick Vitale (@DickieV) November 27, 2021

In the championship finale, Belmont fell short to the University of Dayton by two points.

“We went to Orlando and we got two really good wins, one against a great team that was picked to win the MVC, and we went toe-to-toe with Dayton in the championship game,” Alexander said.

Alexander believes the two road trips helped his team gain some momentum within the season.

Coming back from the break, the Bruins strung together five straight wins to close out the pre-conference slate.

In the Battle of the Boulevard, Belmont handled its rival Lipscomb University by 29 points in a packed Curb Event Center.

“I’m tremendously proud of our team. I felt like we had the right mentality from the tip,” Alexander said after the win. “I appreciate the students that were here and glad that we were able to capitalize in this great environment.”

Finding its stride, Belmont went on the road and grabbed wins over Samford University and Saint Louis University.

Along with those victories, the Bruins edged out state opponent University of Chattanooga at home.

To close out non-conference play, the Bruins skated past Bethel University.

After the first two conference games were postponed, Belmont opened league play with a bang.

Debuting new alternate uniforms giving the team a more classic look, the Bruins trounced Southeastern Missouri State by a record margin of 50 points.

In the same week, the Bruins breezed past University of Tennessee Martin, after which Muszyski earned Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Week honors, averaging 18.5 points and 4.5 rebounds.

The Bruins then faced Tennessee Tech at home, easing by the Golden Eagles in a game where Will Richard shined with 18 points to earn OVC Freshman of the Week honors.

But the win streak came to a halt.

Over the next three games, the Bruins alternated wins and losses, dropping games versus Murray State and at Morehead State.

In a victory against Southern Illinois Edwardsville, however, Murphy notched his second career triple-double.

Setting aside the two rough losses, the Bruins exploded over the next ten games.

Going undefeated in that stretch, Belmont produced plenty of highlight plays and picked up several crucial wins and honors.

In the first game of the streak, Murphy became the all-time OVC assist leader at 702 that night, this in a game against Eastern Illinois where his team picked up its sixth victory by 25 points or more.

Against Tennessee State, the Bruins had no issues, winning by 27 points, 24 of which came from Muszynski.

“We felt more today than we have in a while that this was a Belmont basketball kind of game,” he said in a post-game statement. “Getting our swagger and confidence back was huge for us.”

Then, came the grittiest performance of Belmont’s season.

Traveling to Cookeville to face Tennessee Tech, the Bruins quickly found themselves in a hole.

Down 15 points at halftime, Belmont caught fire in the second and behind Ben Sheppard’s career-high 41 points, and the Bruins secured a 100-92 victory in overtime.

For his offensive showcase, Sheppard earned OVC Player of the Week honors.

After the Bruins defeated Austin Peay at home, Belmont officially secured its 12th consecutive 20-win season.

Of all games within the win streak, the biggest came against Morehead State.

Inside the Curb, the Bruins outlasted the defending OVC champions in nail-biting fashion.

In the closing seconds, Murphy nailed a floater that proved to be the game-winner, electrifying the home crowd and boosting the Bruins conference standing.

“It was the ugliest game of all time,” Alexander said. “Dog fight, street fight; it was just an exhausting game.”

But Belmont’s hot streak came to an end in a 73-46 loss at Murray State.

To close out regular season play, the Bruins put on a show against Tennessee State during homecoming.

In that game, Murphy tied the all time OVC steals record and Belmont cruised to a victory, officially clinching the No. 2 spot in the regular season conference play.

“I thought our guys played really hard. Our energy was great all night,” Alexander said after the 87-67 victory.

Heading into the OVC Tournament, the Bruins stacked up season honors. Murphy, Sheppard and Muszynski were all selected on the All-OVC First Team. 

Will Richard was named a member of the All-Newcomer team, averaging 12.1 points and 6 rebounds in the season.

After a double bye, the Bruins faced Morehead State for the third time in their 2021-22 run, falling short 51-53 in the semifinals.

Awaiting a call to play for basketball, Belmont was awarded an invite to the NIT, drawing crosstown rival Vanderbilt in the first round. Putting forth a solid effort, the Bruins lost 82-71, concluding their season. 

Looking back on the year, coach Alexander remains thankful for his five graduate players.

“It’s hard to put into words what they’ve meant to our program,” Alexander said. “They’ve generated so much success and have accumulated so many awards and accomplishments in their time here.”

As for the future, Alexander remains excited about Belmont’s switch to the MVC and whatever comes next for Belmont basketball.

“It’s a unique opportunity for us,” Alexander said when the conference transition was announced in September. 

“This is an elevated step for us that creates a lot of new opportunities and excitement at the same time.”

PHOTO: No. 22 Ben Sheppard looks to No. 33 Nick Muszynski against Morehead State. Jessica Mattsson / Belmont Vision

This article was written by Landen Secrest.

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