WASHINGTON — The Belmont Bruins had every reason to hold their heads high, but when the final buzzer sounded, they couldn’t help but hang their heads just like the other 15 teams who had their NCAA Tournament dream die Thursday night.
“The outcome doesn’t measure how proud I am of this team and how hard they played,” Belmont coach Rick Byrd said after the Bruins suffered a heartbreaking 71-70 loss to No. 2 seed Duke. “This is a disappointing moment for our team and our program and our young men, to put forth the kind of effort we put forth, to be so close, so very close to getting a huge win for our school, and then you have to go in and talk to a bunch of kids who are crying.”
Belmont (25-9) had lost in its first NCAA Tournament appearances by lopsided margins in 2006 and ’07, but Thursday the Bruins led Duke with just seconds left in front of a Verizon Center crowd that included Vince Gill and thousands of adopted fans rooting for a historic upset.
The Bruins took a 70-69 lead with 2:02 left on a pair of free throws by Justin Hare, but Belmont didn’t score again. Duke scored just once, when Gerald Henderson — who led all scorers with 21 points — grabbed a loose ball off a turnover by Alex Renfroe (team-high 15 points) and drove the distance for a layup through the lane with 11.9 seconds left.
Still, Belmont got three more chances. Hare missed a baseline shot, but the Bruins got the ball back off a jumpball situation, only to have Renfroe throw away the inbounds pass when Duke stood up defensively against a set play meant for Shane Dansby in the lane.
Finally, after Duke senior DeMarcus Nelson came up with the ball and missed a free throw with 2.7 seconds left, perpetual late-game hero Hare couldn’t pull off a miracle from 40 feet at the buzzer.
“We played against a team that played an amazing game,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, the winningest coach in NCAA Tournament history. “They’re very good. We were ready to play.
“You won’t hear any of our players say we overlooked them. There’s no way. Watching them on tape, they looked really good; watching them in person, they looked even better.”
The Bruins established early that this NCAA Tournament trip would be different than their previous two, with Matthew Dotson draining a 3-pointer in the first minute for a 3-0 lead. Belmont didn’t lead again until the second half but never fell behind by much.
Duke did threaten to take control early in the second half, extending its lead to 49-39 on a basket by Henderson at the 17:16 mark, but Belmont closed to within a single point three minutes later to set up a pulsating — but eventually a disappointing — finish.
“I’m proud of our effort and the way we played, but at the same time we’ll be remembered as the team that almost did it,” Hare said. “That’s hard, going out that way.”