Tournament Heartbreak

Tournament Heartbreak

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - - Belmont University men's basketball dropped a 65-59 decision to Jacksonville State Friday night in the semifinal round of the 2017 OVC Basketball Championship.

After claiming a ninth regular season conference championship in the last 12 years and leading the OVC in offensive and defensive efficiency, the Bruins endured an evening that would have left basketball analytics experts scratching their heads and slamming their laptops.

As Belmont dealt with unfathomable 3-point shooting - 8-for-38 - on clean, in-system looks, Gamecock guards Malcolm Drumwright and Greg Tucker made a litany of tough, contested perimeter shots.

Moreover, in its two victories over Jacksonville State during the regular season, Belmont limited the Gamecocks to 60 and 53 points, respectively.

Belmont's first seven points came on early, quick strike offense, with a conventional 3-point play from junior Amanze Egekeze (Lake in the Hills, Ill.) giving the Bruins a 7-4 lead.

An acrobatic offensive rebound basket from senior Nick Smith (Bentonville, Ark.) and a 3-pointer from junior Austin Luke (Rowlett, Texas) increased the lead to five, 14-9, at the 13:45 mark.

3-pointers from Egekeze and sophomore Dylan Windler (Indianpolis, Ind.) kept the Bruin lead at 20-18 before Belmont had a six-minute scoring drought.

A Tucker layin gave Jacksonville State a 31-20 lead with 2:32 left in the first half.

But Belmont closed the half on an inspired 10-0 run, with baskets from Windler, senior All-America candidate Evan Bradds (Jamestown, Ohio), and a conventional 3-point play from senior Taylor Barnette (Lexington, Ky.) closing the margin to one, 31-30, at halftime.

Belmont shot 38 percent (12-for-32) from the field in the opening 20 minutes - including 4-for-19 from 3-point distance. Meanwhile, Jacksonville State shot 58 percent in the first half.

With those shooting numbers, all things considered, the Bruins had to feel good going into the second half.

After an Egekeze blocked shot opened the second half, Belmont had a chance to seize the lead, but Barnette's baseline 3-pointer rimmed off.

Tucker answered with a tough 2-pointer, before Egekeze tied the game at 33 with 18:36 left.

Jacksonville State center Norbertas Giga picked up his third personal foul with 17:40 remaining, but Belmont was unable to work him into further foul difficulty.

And with Jacksonville State focused on Bradds, Belmont simply could not string together enough made shots on clean looks.

A Christian Cunningham tip-in and a Drumwright 3-pointer pushed the margin to nine, 42-33, with 14:58 remaining.

Two Bradds free throws and a Luke 3-pointer closed the margin to four.

Midway through the second half Belmont found some offensive momentum, but the Gamecocks seemingly had an answer at every turn.

Windler and Luke combined on nine points in a two-minute span that looked as though it would give Belmont the lead.

But back-breaking 3-pointers from Erik Durham and Tucker gave Jacksonville State a 55-49 lead with 7:33 to go.

Four points from Bradds and a backdoor slam from Windler got Belmont within 59-55 with 3:33 left.

Following a defensive stop, an Egekeze 3-pointer to trim the margin to one rimmed out.

Moments later, out of a Jacksonville State timeout, Drumwright sank a 3-pointer to push the edge to seven with 2:17 remaining.

Belmont strung together defensive stops, and after a Bradds basket and Windler steal and score, the Bruins closed within 62-59 with 45 seconds left.

At first glance, it appeared as though Belmont head coach Rick Byrd was going to elect to play one possession of defense and then look for a game-tying 3-pointer.

But after Belmont gambled for a steal and was whistled for a foul - its fifth in the second half - with 30 seconds remaining, the Bruins' strategy had to shift to the foul game.

Belmont sent Tucker to the line with 27 seconds remaining, and he proceeded to miss the front end of a one-and-one free throw.

The Bruins secured the rebound and worked the ball into the frontcourt.

Bradds then drove and pitched to Barnette - who lifted Belmont to the 2015 OVC Championship. His potential game-tying 3-pointer with 16 seconds left went halfway down and came out.

Jacksonville State made three free throws in the final 16 seconds to end the game.

It was a gut-wrenching loss for Belmont, as it did not commit a turnover for over 24 minutes of the game, including the entire second half, until the game's final sequence.

All told, Belmont shot 37 percent (22-for-60) from the field - including 8-for-38 from 3-point distance. It would be the Bruins' toughest shooting night in OVC play.

Bradds and Windler led Belmont with 16 points each. Luke added 11.

Drumwright led Jacksonville State (19-14) with 21 points.

Belmont (22-6) will learn of its postseason fate Sunday, March 12.

NOTES: Despite 38 of its 60 field goal attempts coming from long distance, Belmont outscored Jacksonville State in the paint, 26-22 ... Belmont shot 37 percent from 3-point distance in OVC play ... Jacksonville State became just the second OVC team to shoot over 50 percent from the field in a game vs. Belmont this season ... 59 points represented Belmont's lowest scoring output in 51 games, since scoring 57 at Valparaiso Dec. 3, 2015 ... Six turnovers represented the fewest committed by a Belmont team in a loss in the program's NCAA Division I era.