With Ian Clark back on the floor, Belmont had dodged the biggest scare of the night.
Breathing a collective sigh of relief, the Bruins pushed down on the accelerator and showed a national television audience how scary they can be in March.
In the aptly named BracketBusters, Belmont presented its case with an impressive 81-62 victory over Ohio on Saturday night in front of the largest non-sellout crowd in Curb Event Center history.
After he went down with a knee injury late in the first half, Clark returned to lead all scorers with 18 points and became Belmont’s NCAA era career points leader. With a boisterous and energized 4,813 in attendance, and many more watching on ESPN2, the Bruins overwhelmed the Bobcats, who had won 12 of their last 13 and reached the Sweet 16 a year ago.
“This atmosphere and the talent of both teams is what we’re going to see in March and in the [Ohio Valley Conference] tournament,” guard Kerron Johnson said. “The teams are going to be just as jacked and a lot of pressure and intensity in the gym. So coming out and playing the way we did it really sets the tone for us.”
After Belmont (22-6) charged to a 41-24 halftime lead, the Bobcats (20-7) never seriously threatened.
Ohio point guard D.J. Cooper entered with 7.8 assists a game — third-most in Division I — but struggled to run the offense. Guarded by Johnson, Cooper committed four turnovers and scored just six points. The Bobcats made 15 turnovers, which Belmont turned into 15 points, and shot just 39.7 percent. They also missed 19 of 25 3-pointers as the Bruins crowded the perimeter.
“Our guys were unafraid to guard good players,” coach Rick Byrd said. “They got up in them. They were active. They got deflections. They made plays. Sometimes when you play against a team that’s good, so good, and you know it, it is easy to be a little tentative.”
Belmont was anything but apprehensive on offense.
Four players scored in double figures, with 17 points apiece from Trevor Noack and J.J. Mann and 16 points and five assists from Johnson. When they weren’t driving the paint, the Bruins turned to their bread and butter and drained eight of 22 3-pointers. The Bobcats, the second-place team in the Mid-American Conference, looked lost at times and caught off guard when big man Noack stepped outside and made two 3-pointers.
“I think our style gives us an advantage because not a lot of people play our style,” Johnson said. “We run a lot of motion, a lot of getting the clock down. At the same time, we like to get out and run and push it in transition. That mix, it is hard [for opponents] to replicate in practice.”
Perhaps the tensest moment of the night came with 2:40 left in the first half.
With the Bruins leading 34-20, the defense parted and Clark had a wide-open look at the basket. As he jumped up for the uncontested layup, he felt his knee buckle. The ball hit the front of the rim and Clark fell to the ground, clutching his left knee.
“Your heart kind of drops a little bit but he is a tough kid,” Johnson said.
After silence swept over the crowd, Clark rose to his feet and walked to the locker room. Diagnosed as a knee strain, the Bruins’ leading scorer returned at the start of the second half.
After some sluggish moments early, he played through the tendonitis and settled back in. The senior scored 12 points after halftime and his second consecutive 3-pointer lifted Belmont to its largest lead, 71-48, with 7:01 left. His two free throws with 58 seconds left gave him 1,835 for his career propelled him past Wes Burtner, who scored 1,833 from 1998-2002.
“I didn’t know about it until everybody starting getting antsy toward the end,” Clark said. “It’s big. I’m at a loss for words. I’m speechless. My teammates always look for me and they have confidence in me.”
After whipping a veteran team on national TV, the Bruins are confident of their chances to get into the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year and sixth time in program history.
With a win against Southern Illinois-Edwardsville on Wednesday, Belmont will clinch at least a share of the OVC crown. In its first year in the league, the Bruins are 12-2 and have an RPI of 25. They hope that’s enough to land them an at-large bid should they slip up in the conference tournament next week at Municipal Auditorium.
“I think we were already in the conversation,” Byrd said. “But I don’t see how not only a win against a good team but a convincing win like this isn’t a big plus for any team in this situation, whether it us or somebody else. Our RPI has been awfully high all year long. Some people might look at it and wonder why but this helps prove it a little bit.”