It took the effort of nearly every Belmont Bruin to capture an 86-63 Ohio Valley Conference semifinal victory over the Morehead State Eagles.
“Last year we had more of focus guys, this year, I feel like it’s more of a team game,” guard Reece Chamberlain said.
With the win, No. 1 seed Belmont advances to the OVC championship game for the second year in a row in hopes of reaching the NCAA tournament for the fourth consecutive season.
“There’s some value to the fact that our program has been there and our program has won games like this and even if it’s Bradds or Nick Smith who have never played in this type of game, they’ve got a level of confidence freshmen on other teams wouldn’t have,” coach Rick Byrd said.
Five players scored in double figures as JJ Mann led the team with 16 points followed by Blake Jenkins with 13, and Craig Bradshaw, Nick Smith and Evan Bradds with 11.
Belmont garnered an early 8-3 lead but Morehead didn’t take long to respond as strong paint play by Brent Arrington and Chad Posthumus tightened the gap to 14-12 with 11 minutes to go in the first half.
After a three-minute scoring drought, the Bruins were kept alive by Mann’s 3-point game and Chamberlain’s accuracy at the free-throw line.
With five minutes remaining in the half, a Jenkins dunk briefly gave Belmont a 10-point 26-16 lead only to be answered by an Angelo Warner jumper.
By halftime, a Bradds jumper and Caleb Chowbay three allowed the Bruins to keep their double-digit advantage.
Mann led Belmont in points (10) and assists (3) at the half while Blake Jenkins led the team in rebounds (5).
In the opening minutes of the second half, Belmont got help from freshmen Nick Smith and Bradds to obtain a 16-point advantage.
By that point, Morehead State’s Drew Kelly notched his fourth foul, causing a major hole in the Eagle defense.
Three consecutive threes by Mann and Drew Windler let Belmont jump to a 58-39 lead, only to be followed by a Windler foul and ensuing technical near the 12-minute mark.
Jenkins stole the show for the next portion of the game, giving the perimeter play a break with seven consecutive points in the paint as Kelly fouled out for the Eagles with seven minutes remaining in the contest.
From there, the Bruins cruised to victory largely in part to the continued bench support who scored 28 points on the night while Craig Bradshaw found his offensive rhythm in the paint.
Belmont will face the winner of the No. 2 Murray State v. No. 3 Eastern Kentucky game in the OVC finals on Saturday at 6 p.m.
“We’re here for a reason. There’s no need to change anything now,” Mann said.