Travis Williams was just 15 years old in 1987. Back then Tennessee State and Belmont were far from his mind.
More than 25 years later, TSU’s first-year coach dreams of molding the Tigers into a program that mirrors the Bruins' success. Thursday’s night victory was a huge step in that direction.
Behind suffocating defense and multiple scoring threats, Tennessee State knocked off Belmont 80-69 in front of 3,215 at the Gentry Center. The Tigers not only upended the top team in the Ohio Valley Conference but snapped a seven-game losing streak against the Bruins.
TSU hadn’t defeated Belmont since Nov. 28, 1987, when coach Rick Byrd was in just his second year with the Bruins.
“We got a big win,” Williams, 40, said. “I applaud coach Byrd and what they’ve been able to do at Belmont. We’re trying to get to their level as far as building a program. The guys just stepped up.”
Robert Covington scored 25 points on seven-of-nine shooting and Kellen Thornton had a double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds. In all four TSU players scored in double figures. Five players did so for Belmont led by Trevor Noack and Kerron Johnson, with 16 points apiece.
TSU (15-11, 9-4) also avenged a loss last month to Belmont (20-6, 11-2), which has dropped two of three.
“Us losing to them the first time made us want this even more,” Thornton said. “It will just give us confidence for the remaining games. We’re feeling pretty good about ourselves.”
Neither team played well in the first half, committing 12 turnovers apiece. Belmont still surged ahead by 10 early and led 28-23 with 1:05 before halftime.
Then TSU stole the momentum with eight points in 55 seconds. Patrick Miller and Covington sunk back-to-back 3-pointers for a one-point lead. After Belmont’s Kerron Johnson missed a floater with six seconds left, Miller grabbed the rebound and drove the length of the floor and made a layup with one second left for a 31-28 halftime lead.
“I saw there was enough time for me to get as close to the rim as I could,” Miller said. “I just thought get it and push it and whenever I get stopped just try to make a play in the final seconds. [The run] was pretty big. I think that got us going.”
The Tigers didn’t trail after that, pushing the lead to 48-40 with 12:09 left on Thornton’s second straight fade-away jumper. Belmont battled back, but TSU kept answering to stay at arm’s length.
Johnson finally pulled the Bruins even at 5:19 with two free throws to knot the score at 59. But the Tigers responded right away as M.J. Rhett drove the lane for a layup. Jordan Cyphers plucked a steal and scored on the other end to spark a 21-10 run to end the game.
“That’s the key word — resiliency,” Williams said. “Teams are going to make some runs. It is how you weather that difficult moment. On the board [in the locker room before the game] I put poise because it comes down to poise in key moments and decision-making. The guys did that.”
The Tigers also got the Bruins out of their comfort zone on the perimeter. Belmont missed 15 3-pointers in a row and made just five of 26 (19.2 percent) for their worst 3-point shooting performance in three years. They entered the game ranked seventh in the country in 3-point shooting (40.7 percent).
Ian Clark, who led the country in 3-point shooting (51.2 percent), was 0-for-7 from beyond the arc and failed to make a 3-pointer for just the second game this season.
“I’ve always said if you rely on the perimeter game you’re going to have some games when you can beat anybody when anybody can beat you,” Byrd said. “The 3-point shot, as much as we like it, use it, and recruit to it I’d still rather have a solid inside game first because it is more consistent.”
With the win, TSU stays a half a game behind Eastern Kentucky in third place in the OVC East, where Belmont remains on top. The Tigers have accumulated 15 wins in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1996. They also improved to 10-0 at home this season and grabbed its 20th win in 21 games at the Gentry Center.
Afterwards, Williams quickly headed to the airport for a recruiting trip but not before the team jumped him and coaxed him into dancing in the locker room.
“You want to enjoy a win like that because it is huge for our program,” Williams said. “It lets us know we’re making strides, we’re turning corners, we’re changing the culture and we’re doing things the right way. And that’s important for me – running a first-class program and doing things the right way.”