For a game lead wire-to-wire by Belmont, there was plenty of drama inside the Curb Events Center on Saturday.
Belmont nearly loses a 23-point first half lead, but rallies behind five consecutive three pointers in the second half to beat Tennessee State 78-66, and remain the only undefeated team in Ohio Valley Conference play. The win gives Belmont wins over this week alone over the two seemingly biggest contenders in the Division, and put Belmont in control of the earning the one seed in this year’s OVC Tournament.
Midway though the first half, I was questioning my decision in my longest road trip of the season. Belmont was not only up 23 on the Tigers, and Tennessee State was frozen from the field. During the run, the Tigers went nearly 10 minutes without a field goal, trailing 30-7 with just 5:31 to play in the half.
But the Tigers weren’t done yet. TSU scored 10 unanswered points over the three minutes, and cut the lead to 13 at the half. After trading baskets early in the second, the Tigers continued their comeback attempt, scoring 8 unanswered again to cut the Belmont lead to 5. After Kerron Johnson hit a three to stop the bleeding, TSU answered back, cutting the lead to 4 with 14:06 remaining.
But that’s where the comeback would end. Four separate Bruins would hit five straight three’s on their next six trips down the floor, including two by big man Trevor Noack to stretch the lead back to 15 with 7:29 to go. Tennessee State would get the lead back down to eight with just over two minutes to play, but clutch free throws and offensive rebounds off misses sealed the deal for Belmont, who escaped a tough game at home for the second consecutive game.
Ian Clark was held mostly in check. He finished with 22 points, but shot just 7-16 from the field, well below his 70% field goal shooting in conference play, and was just 3-9 from 3-point range. Johnson added 17 on 5-7 shooting, often blowing by TSU defenders off the dribble. Noack finished with 16 points.
Turnovers were the biggest problem for the Tigers, in both the early and late game runs. The Tigers coughed up the ball 16 times, compared to just 6 for the Bruins. Jordan Cyphers had one of his best shooting nights of his career, hitting 7-10 from behind the arc, finishing with 23 points. Kellen Thorton added 16 and 11 rebounds, his fourth double-double in conference play. Patrick Miller scored just 8 points, but the 6’1″ guard pulled down 11 rebounds in the loss. Tennessee State won the battle of the boards by nine, and dominated the paint much of the night.
This week was the first in a three-week gauntlet for the Bruins, and while they passed their first two trials, there are some chinks in the armor. Rebounding is a concern, as is the fact they’ve allowed long runs by their opponents in both their wins. Belmont head coach Rick Byrd shrugged those off, saying those things happen when you have two quality teams playing each other. The question becomes: what happens if one of those runs happen before Belmont builds a big lead. Will they be able to dig out of it?
That being said, Belmont should be the favorite to win the OVC. They have so many weapons, evidenced especially by their second half run. They all but force you to play man defense, and can exploit mismatches at any position on the court.
Tennessee State took some very bad shots early on. It was clear they couldn’t get the three to fall, but continues taking long jumpers early in the shot clock, contributing to Belmont growing a 23-point lead. Their shooting also led to issues inside, as the Bruins were doubling, even tripling guys in the paint, which affected TSU game in the paint, where they really had the advantage. When the three’s started falling, the inside opened up. They would be better off playing inside-out; trying to establish their inside game before relying on threes. It put them into an early corner, and coming back from a 23-point lead against a quality team isn’t going to happen often.
The Tigers head north this week, traveling to Eastern Kentucky (15-4, 4-1) for second place in the East, and then face Morehead State. (10-10, 4-2) Belmont plays the same road swing in reverse order, with a huge rematch against the Colonels Saturday in Richmond.