There’s no telling how many people became fans of Belmont basketball as they watched on television as the Bruins battled perennial power Duke in an NCAA Tournament first-round game three years ago.
It’s clear, though, that the 71-70 loss that day (March 20, 2008) helped Belmont get at least one player.
“They were already recruiting me,” Ian Clark said. “Me and my mom sat and watched the whole game.”
Nearly three years later to the day, Clark is Belmont’s leading scorer and one obvious reason that the Bruins are back in the NCAA for the first time since that contest. They face Wisconsin on Thursday in the first full round of the event (officially the second round under the new 68-team format) and are a No. 13 seed, the highest in program history.
As Clark watched the Bruins and Blue Devils battle to the finish, he said he became convinced that Belmont was the place he should go.
Those who played in that game — a matchup between Nos. 2 and 15 seeds — came away equally convinced that Belmont had the potential to go beyond the first round. It is a feeling that has not faded with time.
“Especially playing in that game, being a part of it, you were disappointed to lose,” senior forward Jon House, one of two remaining Belmont players from that contest, said. “You weren’t happy to be close. … At the same time, it gave us a sense of confidence that we can go to the tournament — even as a 15 seed — and play a team that close. So we have that kind of confidence in this program to do that.”
Belmont led a couple times in the opening minutes but spent the majority of the first half trailing. A seven-point halftime deficit quickly grew to 10 in the opening minutes of the second half.
Then things got serious.
House had a layup in a 9-0 run that cut the margin to one (51-50) with 14:17 to play. A little more than three minutes later the Bruins went ahead and started a closing sequence in which there were three lead changes and two ties in the final 10 minutes.
Belmont took a 70-69 lead on a pair of Justin Hare free throws with 2:02 remaining. Neither team scored over the next 1:50. Then Duke’s Gerald Henderson made the game-winning layup with 12 seconds left.
The Bruins missed two shots and committed a turnover after that as their upset bid fell just short. They came as close as any 15 seed in the past nine seasons.
“We have two guys, Jon House and Jordan Campbell, who played a lot in that game, so I’m sure that will be helpful [this year],” coach Rick Byrd said. “I think it’s just as helpful that our program’s been [to the tournament] three times in the last six years. I think there’s a residual plus to that, even though most of these guys weren’t on that team.”
Campbell played 22 minutes that day and scored seven points with two blocked shots (Belmont’s only two), one steal and one assist. House had four points in 12 minutes.
“I’m glad to be one of those guys,” Campbell said. “I feel like they look up to me throughout the season and they’re going to be looking at me and Jon House in those times that — say we get down or anything like that.
“Being in the Duke game I feel like I can help definitely. … [But] I’m still pretty disappointed about that game — I’m not going to lie.”