The 13-seed Belmont Bruins will have to fight an uphill battle when they play the 4-seed Michigan State Spartans Friday in the second NCAA Tournament game in program history.
However, the Bruins have been fighting an uphill battle most of the season after suffering a midseason six-game losing streak. The Bruins rallied to win 16 of their last 17 games to close out the season including winning their first conference championship since joining the OVC.
Belmont head coach Cam Newbauer believes the season turned around when the team began to fight harder for rebounds and prevent opportunities for second-chance points.
“We would get stops, but then we wouldn’t finish the possession with a defensive rebound,” said Newbauer. “If you look at our rebounding numbers, it is proof we’ve gotten better at it.”
The Bruins finished the season ranked 11th in Division 1 in rebounds per game. The Spartans were ranked 15th in Division 1 in rebounds per game.
Belmont will look towards the trio of freshman Darby Maggard, sophomore Kylee Smith and sophomore Sally McCabe to lead the way on both ends of the court. All three players were named to the All-OVC team this season and Maggard and McCabe both received postseason conference recognition as the freshman of the year and the co-defensive player of the year, respectively.
“It’s been so much fun to be with this team and to be with these girls,” said Maggard. “To get to be here in the NCAA Tournament with my best friends is a dream come true.”
Michigan State is led by junior forward Aerial Powers who holds the school record for career double-doubles. While the Spartans boast a talented roster, Belmont players are focused on their own performance in the game.
“I don’t think we necessarily need to worry about Michigan State, worry about Aerial Powers. They’re a great team and she’s a great player,” said Smith. “We just have to play our own game and be confident in what we do.”
Newbauer is familiar with upsets in the NCAA Tournament. Before coming to Belmont, Newbauer was an assistant coach with the Louisville Cardinals and in 2013 the Cardinals made a Cinderella run to the championship game before losing to UConn.
Newbauer was hired by Belmont as the new head coach in the following offseason, but he has transferred some of the things he learned from his time at Louisville to his team’s current run.
“We didn’t make it any bigger than it was,” said Newbauer. “Yes, it was the championship game, but at the same time, it’s just another game, another great opportunity for us to go out and compete.”
While the game will be the most high-profile of the season for the Bruins, Newbauer wants to make sure his team remains calm and approach the game from a fun perspective.
“If the general is calm, the troops are calm. If I’m anxious and nervous and worried, our players are going to sense that,” said Newbauer. “We just try to keep them calm and have fun. We make it a fun opportunity to compete, not a pressure situation that we have to win.”
The game is scheduled for tipoff at 11:05 a.m. and will air on ESPN2.