The Atlantic Sun never pushed Belmont to these limits, especially not with an NCAA Tournament berth on the line.
The Bruins got all they could handle and more in their first Ohio Valley Conference Tournament. And just like five of the last seven A-Sun tournaments, Belmont was the last team standing — albeit exhausted and a little worse for wear.
After withstanding valiant efforts from the teams that gave them their only conference losses in the regular season — Tennessee State and Murray State — the Bruins are headed to the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year. An 82-73 win over TSU on Friday and a dramatic come-from-behind 70-68 overtime victory against Murray on Saturday resulted in Belmont cutting down the nets at Municipal Auditorium.
“We had to beat two teams as good or better than probably than any team in all the A-Sun tournament games,” coach Rick Byrd said. “Now, I’m not being critical. I think overall the leagues have been relatively comparable over the last five or six years. Hopefully us coming here has strengthened this league in comparison. But the two games were just tougher.”
In moving to the OVC, the Bruins (26-6) held up their competitive end of the bargain with an outright regular-season championship — their fourth straight — and a 14-2 mark in league play.
The only blips were losses at Murray and at TSU. Both teams drip with athleticism and big, bruising bodies that also play high above the rim. Both, judged solely on four combined OVC Tournament games, look the part of an NCAA Tournament team.
“Very difficult,” point guard and tournament MVP Kerron Johnson said. “We played two very physical teams, two teams who beat us in the regular season. We wanted a chance to get that payback.”
First, Belmont had to fend off TSU and its trio of Robert Covington, Patrick Miller and Kellen Thornton. A matchup nightmare inside for Byrd and the Bruins, who lack a true big man, they countered with sensational guard play. Led by Ian Clark and Johnson’s combined 49 points, they neutralized Covington, Miller and Thornton, who accounted for 55 points. Johnson’s drives in the paint pulled Belmont back in front before Clark sank six 3-pointers in the second half.
Twenty-four hours later, a backcourt tandem just as daunting as their posed a different challenge.
Co-OVC player of the year Isaiah Canaan — he shared it with Clark — scored 22 points and Stacy Wilson added 23. Canaan got into a one-on-one battle with Clark, staring down his rival after knocking down a 3 and getting fouled. Wilson’s throw-in, off-balance 3-pointer at the end of the shot clock gave Murray a seven-point lead with 3:10 left and contributed to 81.3 percent shooting in the second half. That’s right; the Racers shot 81.3 percent (13-of-16) after halftime and still lost.
Credit Johnson and Clark. The duo — along with J.J. Mann and Reece Chamberlain and others — harassed Canaan and Wilson into 13 turnovers. Murray (21-11) finished with 26 and was also outscored 48-18 in the paint.
Undersized Trevor Noack had 14 points but most of Belmont's inside points came on drives to the basket or on fastbreaks. One of the country’s more trigger-happy 3-point shooting teams, the Bruins relied less on the 3 Saturday — they made just four — and more on their unheralded athleticism.
That started with Johnson, whose knack for creating inside was put on display in front of a nationally televised audience. Twice, he drove inside the paint to deliver enormous shots. The first was a spinning, fadeaway jumper over 6-foot-7 Ed Daniel to send the game to overtime. The second was a game-winning pull-up jumper with 1.2 seconds left that will go down in Belmont lore.
“It really took a lot of everybody having to guard great offensive player the last two games whether it’d be Covington, Thornton, Miller and then you’ve got Isaiah,” Johnson said. “Their whole team was knocking down shots. It takes a lot out of you. You just got to really decide how bad you really want it. You can see it in all of our players’ eyes. Even when we were down with about a minute and a half, everybody believed we still can win it and stayed to the game plan and stayed with coach told us we to do. He told us if we stayed with it we would come out on top and we did.”
As has become habit for the better part of a decade, Belmont will be heading to the NCAA Tournament.
Now, just a new set of faces know how it feels to watch the Bruins run the table.
“I think it has a little bit more meaning coming in a new conference,” Johnson said. “I think we had a little bit of a chip on our shoulder. We really wanted to win and prove that we can come to a quote, unquote bigger conference and do well and play well and perform well. It really meant a lot to our fans and coaching staff to be able to watch us take care of business at home.”