It was a case of the haves and the have-nots on Monday night.
On one end of the floor sat Belmont, which has 11 players who average 10 minutes a game. On the other side of the court was Tennessee State, which was limited to just eight players and played only seven.
Still, the host Tigers put together two second-half charges to keep it interesting before Belmont pulled away for an 87-72 victory at the Gentry Center.
The Bruins’ deep bench was — and has been — an advantage. They used nine players before the five-minute mark, used 11 with six minutes left in the first half and had a line change of sorts, subbing in its five starters all at once a couple minutes into the second half.
Belmont (4-1) emptied its bench in the second half and eventually all 12 played.
“Seemed like it was about 40,” Tennessee State coach John Cooper said. “It is hard to duplicate or simulate the practices for what you are going to face. It is almost impossible. I am here trying to juggle how do you get your team ready, yet, how do you make sure they have energy to play in a game? It is not a fun situation to be in but what I do know is that competitors understand that you have to compete for 40 minutes.”
Tennessee State (1-4) has played with a short bench for most of the season. The Tigers entered the season with just nine scholarship players and two walk-ons.
Then injury struck. Tashan Fredrick went down with a knee injury before the season and has not yet played. Jerret Towns has missed the last five games with an ankle injury.
Plus starter Jacquan Nobles did not play against Belmont and watched the game from the stands. He played just six minutes against St. Louis last week. Cooper said his sophomore has taken “a leave of absence” and said he would know within 24 hours whether or not Nobles would still be on the team.
“He wasn’t happy, frustrated, whatever you want to call it and he decided he was going to leave,” Cooper said. “Depending on what happens and where he is with it, it is going to come through me. Having said that, there is no problem whatsoever with disciplinary action. He is a good kid. He has not caused any problems. He has not done anything illegal. He has not broken any kind of rule. He is a good kid. But you have to do things the right way. You have to understand this is a team game.”
Belmont led 49-23 at halftime, getting 12 points from its starters and 37 from its bench.
Tennessee State made it close twice though, opening the second half on a 15-3 run to trim the lead to 14 points. The Tigers took advantage of 16 second-half turnovers by Belmont. After the Bruins pushed the lead back up to 21, the Tigers charged back, trailing just 66-55 with 7:41 remaining.
“I figured that as we were going on, the runs would keep going and we would keep knocking it down,” Tennessee State forward Robert Covington said.
Ian Clark, however, made a 3-pointer on the very next possession after Jon House grabbed a big offensive rebound. It was the start of a 10-0 Belmont run and ended Tennessee State’s hopes of a comeback. The Tigers pulled back within 11 once more but that was with 1:50 to go.
“We have had incredible leads here in the last four games but we have not really come out in the second half once and been as ready to play as we were in the first half,” Belmont coach Rick Byrd said. “We are not going to have 20-plus point halftime leads very often. A 10-point halftime lead almost any under circumstance is good. If it would have been a 10-point halftime lead tonight we would have lost the game.”
Ten players scored for Belmont and four scored in double figures. Mick Hedgepeth led the way with 15. Off the bench, Scott Saunders had 12 of his 14 in the first half, J.J. Mann scored 13 before halftime and Kerron Johnson added 11.
For Tennessee State, Covington had a game-high 18 points, Kenny Moore and Wil Peters each scored 15, and Patrick Miller added 11.
“I give Tennessee State an awful lot of credit. Those guys play hard,” Byrd said. “They’re shorthanded right now. They can shoot the fire out of it and they can drive it and they are going to be hard for people to beat before this season is out.”
• Belmont plays its first home game at 7 p.m. Thursday against Mercer in its Atlantic Sun Conference opener.
The Bruins are one of the last teams in the country to play a home game this late into this season. After hosting an exhibition game against Northern State on Nov. 9, Belmont has played five games away from the Curb Event Center. The Bruins were in the NIT Season Tip-Off, which spanned two weeks, and played two games in Knoxville and two in Winston Salem, N.C.
• Tennessee State opens it conference season when it plays at Eastern Illinois at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. The Tigers were picked to finish seventh in the Ohio Valley Conference in a preseason poll by the coaches and sports information directors.
• Moore had made 22 straight free throws before missing an attempt with 2:50 left in the game. Moore, a Philadelphia native, hadn’t missed since the season opener against Mississippi State on Nov. 12. He made 5-of-6 against Belmont and is 25-of-28 this season.
• It was Belmont’s fourth straight victory and Tennessee State’s fourth straight loss. The Bruins have won five in a row against the Tigers.