NASHVILLE, Tenn. - - Belmont men's basketball showed collective resolve in defeating USC Upstate, 88-79, Monday night.
Belmont seniors Drew Hanlen (St. Louis, Mo.), Mick Hedgepeth (Crossville, Ala.) and Scott Saunders (New Orleans, La.) were honored prior to the game. Each would make significant contributions in their final appearance on the Curb Event Center floor.
The Bruins attacked USC Upstate pressure early, as five points from junior Ian Clark (Memphis, Tenn.) enabled Belmont to seize an 11-2 lead less than four minutes in.
Belmont coupled that attacking offense with hounding defense and stretched out the lead.
A fast break dunk and two free throws from sophomore Blake Jenkins (Knoxville, Tenn.) pushed the advantage to 23-9 with 11:46 left in the half.
Consecutive interior baskets from Hedgepeth and Saunders, and a three-pointer from junior Kerron Johnson (Huntsville, Ala.) made the score 30-15 with 8:11 left in the half.
In one of the most intense and fiercely contested games in recent memory, every pass, every catch and every rebound was hard earned.
In fact, USC Upstate full court pressure slowly yielded Bruin turnovers or contested shots.
After a Hanlen three-pointer, Adrian Rodgers capped a 7-0 USC Upstate run to narrow the margin to 38-30 with 2:05 left in the half.
But behind another wing three-pointer from Hanlen and an acrobatic tip-in from freshman Reece Chamberlain (Goodlettsville, Tenn.), Belmont led 47-35 at halftime.
Belmont shot 43 percent (15-for-35) from the field in the first half - including 5-for-12 from three-point distance. The Bruins outrebounded USC Upstate 25-16 in the opening 20 minutes, but surprisingly committed 12 turnovers.
After an exhange of baskets, a Hedgepeth layin off a feed from Jenkins gave Belmont a 51-37 lead with 17:25 left.
Timely shots from junior Brandon Baker (Milford, Ohio) and Hanlen answered Spartan scores to preserve a double figure lead.
But after a wing three-pointer from Clark gave Belmont a 61-48 advantage with 12:09 left, USC Upstate made a spirited run. Eight points from Ty Greene and a short jump shot from Rodgers got the Spartans within 63-60 with 7:32 left.
In need of a spark, Belmont received one from Saunders, who delivered a tough conventional three-point play to stretch the lead back out to 66-60.
A determined coast-to-coast layin from Johnson gave Belmont a 70-63 lead with 5:16 to go.
Greene would get USC Upstate within four moments later with a deep three-pointer. Following an empty possession, Belmont got a key defensive stop and earned a trip to the free throw line when sophomore J.J. Mann (Smyrna, Ga.) was fouled after grabbing a rebound.
Mann made both free throws to make the score 72-66 with 4:26 left.
After forcing a Spartan turnover, Hanlen sank a three-pointer from the right wing to increase the lead to nine with 3:36 left.
Mario Blessing would answer with a straight-on three-pointer, before Jenkins powered home a slam on the offensive glass and Johnson tacked on a conventional three-pointer to give the Bruins an 80-69 edge with 2:08 left.
After a Jodd Maxey basket, Mann made a three-pointer to put Belmont ahead 83-71 with 1:28 left.
Belmont had to weather some uncharacteristic free throw misses and turnovers in the final minute as USC Upstate played until the final horn.
But the Bruins were able to honor Hanlen, Hedgepeth, and Saunders with final appreciative home cheers as they were substituted out in the final moments.
All told, Belmont shot 47 percent (29-for-62) from the field - including 9-for-22 from three-point distance. The Bruins forced 21 turnovers and went 21-for-29 from the free throw line.
Johnson led five Bruins in double figures with 19 points, five rebounds and five assists. Hanlen added 18 points, four rebounds and three assists.
Hedgepeth added 11 points and seven rebounds, while Jenkins had 11 points, six rebounds and three assists. Clark scored 10.
Greene led USC Upstate (18-11, 11-5 Atlantic Sun) with 18 points.
With the victory, the Bruins secure at least a share of their fifth Atlantic Sun Conference regular season championship in the last seven years.
Belmont (22-7, 14-2 Atlantic Sun) returns to action Thursday, Feb. 23 at Kennesaw State.
Tip-off is set for 6 p.m. CT. The live play-by-play of Voice of the Bruins Kevin Ingram can be heard on the Bruin Sports Network. Live video streaming will be available via ASun.TV.
NOTES: With 10 points, junior Ian Clark passed Adam Sonn for fourth place on Belmont's NCAA era scoring list. Clark has 1,249 career points...Belmont is 25-1 at the Curb Event Center the last two years...Hanlen, Hedgepeth and Saunders have been a part of 91 Bruin victories through three-plus seasons.