DURHAM, N.C. - - Displaying courage and resolve that have earned national respect, Belmont men's basketball came within a heartbeat of beating four-time National Champion Duke. Again. But the Blue Devils claimed a hard-fought 77-76 victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium to open the 2011 EA Sports Maui Invitational.
Belmont and Duke began the evening having played once prior, a memorable 2008 NCAA Tournament game in Washington, D.C. in which the Blue Devils claimed a 71-70 victory behind a basket from Gerald Henderson with 12 seconds remaining.
Ironically, several members of the 2008 Bruin squad were attendance at historic Cameron Indoor Stadium as Belmont got a rare second chance to face the storied Blue Devils.
While Belmont returned 10 of its 12 man rotation from last year's 30-5 NCAA Tournament team, sixth-ranked Duke entered riding an NCAA-high 36 game home court win streak and an 86 game non-conference home court win streak dating back to Feb. 26, 2000.
With the mystique and tradition of Cameron Indoor Stadium - and the famed Cameron Crazies - living up to advanced billing, so to would the game itself be another classic.
Senior Scott Saunders (New Orleans, La.) got the season started off on the right foot, as his interior basket off a timely feed from junior Kerron Johnson (Huntsville, Ala.) put Belmont on top 15 seconds in.
Both teams showcased tremendous pressure defense throughout, but periodic overaggressiveness plagued Belmont and fouls quickly accumulated.
Duke was in the bonus just 6:26 into the game, and took advantage by going 10-for-13 from the free throw line in the first half.
After Hedgepeth's two free throws gave Belmont a 13-12 edge, the Blue Devils went on a 10-2 run capped by a Mason Plumlee jumpshot.
But another interior basket from Saunders and a bank shot from junior Trevor Noack (Keller, Texas) settled the Bruins back in.
A Kerron Johnson coast-to-coast driving layin got the Bruins within 34-29 with 1:49 left in the half, before the Blue Devils closed the half strong.
Two Ryan Kelly free throws and a three-pointer from Seth Curry pushed the Duke lead to 39-30 late in the half. Moments later, Johnson would be called for an offensive foul while breaking Duke pressure, giving the Blue Devils a final opportunity to score before halftime.
Kelly would rim out a baseline three-point attempt, keeping the margin at nine at the break.
The first half statistics would be largely even, with the exception of one area: three-point shooting. Typically, Belmont's hallmark, the Bruins went an uncharacteristic 0-for-7 from behind the arc in the first half, while Duke went 5-for-12.
Saunders led the Bruins with nine first half points.
Another Curry jumpshot stretched the margin to 11 points early in the second half before Belmont made a determined run. A three-pointer from senior Drew Hanlen (St. Louis, Mo.) and four points from Mann got the Bruins within 41-37 with 17 minutes remaining.
But just as Belmont appeared to temper the partisan home crowd, the Blue Devils embarked on a key spurt of their own.
After triples from Curry and Austin Rivers, Tyler Thornton capped a 12-0 Duke run over 2:41 to give the Blue Devils a commanding 53-37 edge with 14:19 to go.
Belmont head coach Rick Byrd quickly called timeout and implored his team to settle down and make plays. They responded in champion form.
After another trey from Hanlen, Hedgepeth slithered inside for two points to trim the margin to 53-42.
But moments later, Johnson would be forced to sit after picking up his fourth personal foul with 11:38 remaining. Yet the Bruins weathered the storm.
A Mason Plumlee basket gave Duke a 59-47 advantage with 9:08 left before Belmont willed its way even closer.
Consecutive three-pointers from Mann and Hanlen cut the margin in half. All the while, Belmont's defensive pressure and communication forced Duke into turnovers or heavily-contested shots.
Two clutch free throws from junior Adam Barnes (Clarksville, Tenn.) and two more from Hedgepeth inched Belmont within 59-57 with 7:11 left, and spiked the uneasiness of Duke fans.
After two Curry charity makes, Hanlen once again buried a wing three-pointer to close Belmont within, one, 61-60, with 6:32 to go. All told, it was a 23-8 Bruin run following the Byrd timeout.
Belmont bench grew more lively with each passing possession.
But Duke had a rapid response. A conventional three-point play from Kelly and slam dunks from Plumlee and Rivers stretched the Duke lead back to 68-60 with 3:58 left.
Three points from Johnson inched Belmont within 70-63 with 3:17 to go and more stout Bruin defense kept the momentum going.
Hedgepeth provided one of two free throws moments later, and junior Brandon Baker (Milford, Ohio) hustled for two putback opportunities that would rim off.
Thornton sank two free throws with 1:24 left to put the Blue Devils up 72-66.
Johnson immediately raced downcourt and attacked the basket, earning two free throws of his own. He made both to get Belmont back within 72-68 with 1:18 left.
Belmont would continue to extend pressure, eventually forcing a turnover as junior Ian Clark (Memphis, Tenn.) stole the ball from Curry.
Clark proceeded to drive the lane and make a miraculous circus shot as he was fouled by Thornton. The unexpected, conventional three-point play got the Bruins within 72-71 with 52 seconds left.
Belmont then proceeded to play strong halfcourt defense, cutting off driving and passing lanes. With the shot clock down to 12 seconds, and 28 seconds on the game clock, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski was forced to call timeout.
Following the timeout, Curry drove inside the three-point line and kicked out to Andre Dawkins, who sank a deep three-pointer with 16 seconds left to give the Blue Devils a 74-70 lead.
It was a crushing sequence for Belmont, especially considering the quality of play for large stretches of the possession and the game in total.
Nonetheless, Johnson again raced to the basket and scored with 10 seconds remaining to cut the Duke lead to two points.
Following a timeout, Belmont pressured Duke's primary ball handlers - namely Curry and Rivers - which briefly freed Kelly, who was quickly fouled.
Kelly calmly sank both free throws to put the Blue Devils up 77-73 with six seconds left.
Looking for a four-point play, Clark buried a deep three-pointer in traffic as time expired to provide the final margin.
All told, Belmont shot 46 percent (27-for-57) from the field. And after missing their first seven three-point field goal attempts, the Bruins went 6-for-12 from long distance in the second half.
Belmont forced 19 Duke turnovers and outrebounded the Blue Devils, 35-34.
Five Bruins scored in double figures, paced by Johnson's career-high tying 15 points. He added six assists and two steals. Clark scored 13 points, all in the final 11 minutes.
Hanlen and Mann each scored 12 points, while Hedgepeth added 11 points and seven rebounds.
Curry and Rivers each had 16 points for Duke (1-0).
Belmont (0-1) returns to action Tuesday, Nov. 15 at Memphis as part of the Opening Games of the EA Sports Maui Invitational. Tip-off is set for 11am CT. The game will be broadcast live on ESPN and ESPN3.com as part of the network's annual college basketball marathon.
The live play-by-play of Voice of the Bruins Kevin Ingram can be heard on the Bruin Sports Network.