HUNTINGTON, W. Va. - - In the cruelest of end sequences, Belmont men's basketball saw an emotional road victory go by the boards in an 87-86 setback at Marshall Monday.
The Thundering Herd, who entered the evening as one of the top rebounding teams in the nation, established a presence in the paint early in grabbing a 10-2 lead.
The Bruins showcased fine pace, togetherness and offensive balance, with the post duo of Scott Saunders (New Orleans, La.) and Mick Hedgepeth (Crossville, Ala.) complimenting Bruin drives and perimeter shots.
A conventional three-point play from junior Kerron Johnson (Huntsville, Ala.) got the Bruins within 33-32 with 3:09 left in the half.
But Dennis Tinnon capped an 8-0 Marshall run to stretch the margin to 41-32 late in the half.
Five more points from Saunders helped cut the margin to 46-39 at halftime.
Despite shooting only 43 percent (12-for-28) and surrendering 10 offensive rebounds to the Herd in the first half, the Bruins were well positioned to make a run in the second half.
While Marshall exhibited unquestioned rebounding prowess, it also showcased outside shooting touch as well. The Herd, a 26 percent three-point shooting team, got a deep three-pointer from DeAndre Kane to put Marshall up 49-41.
Johnson's two free throws cut the score to 50-47 with 16:55 left.
The Bruins' lone scoring lull took place thereafter, and Marshall seized the opportunity to push the lead back out, both via halfcourt and transition.
Six points from Kane gave Marshall a 58-47 lead with 13:42 left.
After layins from Saunders and Clark, Kane and Shaquille Johnson buried consecutive threes to increase the Herd lead to 66-53 with 10:35 left.
With the partisan Cam Henderson Center crowd roaring, it would have been easy for Belmont to say it was simply not meant to be.
But Bruin DNA is comprised of equal parts poise under pressure and strong will, and Belmont would fight on.
Five quick points from Clark trimmed the margin to 70-62 with 8:26 to go.
Then after defensive stops, Hedgepeth scored on a short jumpshot and Saunders added two free throws to close within 70-66 with 7:00 left.
From there, the teams would exchange offensive haymakers. After a Robert Goff conventional three-point play, sophomore J.J. Mann (Smyrna, Ga.) replied with a three-pointer to cut it back to 73-69.
But again, the Herd would go off the scouting report and its strength, and score from long distance. A Pitts three-pointer pushed the lead back to 76-69 with 6:01 to go.
Yet Mann answered back with a three-pointer to close within 76-72.
Five points from Johnson got Belmont within 78-77 with 3:59 left, and the Bruin bench applauded its approval.
Out of the under four timeout, Pitts threaded a baseline bounce pass to Kane, who scored a reverse layin while being fouled to push the Herd lead back to four.
Johnson, continuing to weave his way through the Marshall defense, sank a short jumper to cut the deficit in half with 3:36 left.
After an exchange of defensive stops, Kane tipped in his own miss to give Marshall an 83-79 with 2:08 left.
But again Belmont pushed on. Baker buried a three-pointer on a nice feed from Johnson to cut the margin to 83-82 with 1:55 left.
Then on the next Herd possession, Baker tipped a pass away from Kane. Redshirt junior Adam Barnes (Clarksville, Tenn.) outraced Pitts to the loose ball and was fouled on the play.
Barnes proceeded to make two clutch free throws with 1:26 left to give Belmont an 84-83 lead.
The Bruins then played an extraordinary possession of defense, forcing Kane into a heavily-contested deep two-point shot. The long rebound skied in the air, and Baker and Johnson collided on the rebound attempt, with the ball going back to Marshall.
With a new shot clock, Marshall turned to Pitts, who made a tough floater from 12 feet to put Marshall back ahead, 85-84, with 32 seconds left.
Following a Bruin timeout, Belmont freed Johnson in the lane, who found Hedgepeth for a high percentage shot. Hedgepeth would be fouled in the act of shooting and receive two free throws with 17 seconds left.
With a chance to tie or retake the lead, Hedgepeth would miss both free throws.
The long rebound went to Marshall, and Belmont fouled Dennis Tinnon with 11 seconds left.
Tinnon would make both free throws to give Marshall an 87-84 lead.
Not wanting the Bruins to sink a game-tying three-pointer, Marshall elected to foul Johnson as he crossed halfcourt with seven seconds left.
Johnson made both free throws to cut the margin to one point.
The Bruins then pressed and fouled Pitts with 5.6 seconds to go.
Pitts, a career 82 percent free throw shooter, would miss both shots of a two-shot foul to give Belmont a final chance to win.
Hedgepeth handed the rebound to Johnson, who raced downcourt.
Belmont could not have asked for a better scenario - arguably its most imposing driver heading to the basket for a winning shot.
Johnson sliced through the entire Marshall defense and rose for a layin at the rim.
With his momentum taking him to the right side of the goal, Johnson layed up the shot with his right hand with one second left. The ball proceeded to inexplicably dance on the rim and roll off as the buzzer sounded. A shot that Johnson and Bruin fans have seen go through the hoop hundreds of times, just spun out.
It was an agonizing outcome to what had been a compelling college basketball game.
All told, Belmont shot 47 percent (27-for-58) from the field - but just 7-for-22 from three-point distance. The Bruins outrebounded Marshall 19-16 in the second half, and limited the Herd to only four offensive rebounds after halftime.
Johnson paced six Bruins in double figures with 18 points and five assists. Saunders provided his strongest performance of the season with 17 points and seven rebounds. Baker scored 14 points off the bench. Clark had 12, Mann 11, and Hedgepeth 10.
Kane led Marshall (8-2) with 29 points.
Four of Belmont's five setbacks this season have come in the final seconds.
Belmont (7-5, 2-0 Atlantic Sun) returns to action Wednesday, Dec. 21 at Austin Peay. Tip-off is set for 7:30 p.m. CT.
The live play-by-play of Voice of the Bruins Kevin Ingram can be heard on the Bruin Sports Network and 104.5 The Zone.
NOTE: Belmont head coach Rick Byrd served an Atlantic Sun Conference mandated one-game suspension after receiving two technical fouls and an ejection in the Dec. 17 game at Miami (OH). Associate head coach Brian Ayers led the Bruin team.