This transition to the Ohio Valley Conference had provided Belmont little resistance.
Four games in, the Bruins easily asserted themselves as one of the premier teams, outscoring OVC opponents by an average of 28.5 points.
Just when it appeared Belmont would coast to its fifth straight win and into Saturday’s much anticipated matchup against crosstown rival Tennessee State, Eastern Kentucky made the Bruins work.
After a 17-point first-half lead slipped away, Belmont battled back and finally pulled away in the final five minutes. Two big 3-pointers provided separation as the Bruins held off the feisty Colonels for an 83-76 win on Thursday at the Curb Event Center.
Ian Clark scored 22 points and Blake Jenkins added 21 as Belmont (14-4, 5-0) stayed undefeated in league play. It sets up a showdown between the league’s last two undefeated teams as Tennessee State (12-7, 6-0) held off Jacksonville State on Thursday.
“We’re not going to blow out everyone,” Jenkins said. “We’re going to get everybody’s best shot. EKU gave us their best shot. They were tough.”
Despite a 29-12 lead with 4:52 before halftime, Belmont couldn’t shake the Colonels (14-4, 4-1). Leading the charge was Mike DiNunno, who scored a season-high 26 points. With 12 3-pointers and 21 takeaways, the Colonels stormed back. DiNunno’s two free throws at the 6:39 mark gave EKU its largest lead, 69-65.
The Bruins responded with an 18-7 run en route to their 14th straight win at home. Three free throws followed a key offensive rebound and putback by Reece Chamberlain to push Belmont back in front. J.J. Mann added the crucial insurance when he received a pass from Craig Bradshaw and sunk a 3-pointer on the left key for a four-point lead. Clark followed with his fifth 3-pointer to cap a 12-0 spurt for a 77-69 lead with 3:26 left.
It was just enough to sink the Colonels, despite DiNunno’s best efforts. The vocal point guard, who often turned to the Belmont students and voiced his opinions, delivered two long 3-pointers in the last three minutes to allow to EKU pull within three with 1:05 left. But Jenkins made two pivotal free throws with 31.3 seconds to go as the Bruins survived.
“We got a little stagnant on offense,” Clark said. “But later on in the half when people got going, guys got in a rhythm. I think that is what opened it up for us. We had a lot of penetration and skips and guys were hitting shots. We had to find a groove.”
Kerron Johnson added 15 points but also committed eight turnovers. Trevor Noack grabbed 10 rebounds as Belmont dominated the boards 38-19 and outscored EKU 40-26 in the paint.
“It is a big win,” Byrd said. “[EKU] is a team coming in here undefeated and has a leg up on all of us [in the OVC] because they’ve gone to [defending league champ] Murray State and won. So to find a way to scratch out a win in this game, it wasn’t pretty and there were a lot of things that weren’t good about it but... that’s a really good basketball team. So it was a good win even if it didn’t come as easy as some of our others have.”
Now Byrd and the Bruins can turn their attention to TSU, which comes to the Curb Event Center at 7 p.m. on Saturday.
The Tigers have won seven straight and are off to their best OVC start since 1994-95. But they’re 0-5 against Belmont the last five seasons.
The winner takes sole possession of first place in the OVC East Division, but the tems get another crack at one another when TSU hosts Belmont on Feb. 14.
“It should be a really big game,” Byrd said. “This is one of the reasons we’re in the OVC now. This crowd was good and I think the crowd on Saturday will hopefully be better. I know they’re bringing two busloads of students I hear. So it ought to be a great atmosphere.”