MURFREESBORO, Tenn. - - In a game with the drama and intensity of March, Belmont men's basketball defeated Middle Tennessee State, 87-84, in double overtime to claim the EA Sports Maui Invitational Regional Championship.
Leading 11-9 seven minutes in, Belmont ripped off a 15-2 run over a four minutes span to seize a 26-11 lead with 8:26 left in the half.
Sophomore Blake Jenkins (Knoxville, Tenn.) and senior Mick Hedgepeth (Crossville, Ala.) each provided four points during the spurt, and senior Drew Hanlen (St. Louis, Mo.) capped the run with a steal and layin.
But the Blue Raiders, seasoned by quality early season victories over the likes of UCLA, Austin Peay, Loyola Marymount and UNC Greensboro, made a predictable run over their own.
A flurry of three-pointers from Raymond Cintron and Marcos Knight trimmed the score to 35-34 at halftime.
Belmont shot 45 percent (15-for-33) in the first half - but just 1-for-10 from three-point distance. Meanwhile, the Bruins forced 10 MTSU turnovers in the opening 20 minutes.
Belmont started the second half with junior Ian Clark (Memphis, Tenn.) on the bench, nursing three personal fouls.
After a dunk from JT Sulton gave MTSU a 39-38 lead, redshirt junior Adam Barnes (Clarksville, Tenn.) continued his fine early season play with a wing three-pointer to put the Bruins back ahead.
Sophomore J.J. Mann would tack on a layin to stretch the lead to four. But moments after re-entering the contest, Clark picked up his fourth personal foul with 13:21 remaining in regulation on a player control foul.
Nevertheless, Belmont pushed on, getting more clutch contributions off the bench. Freshman Spencer Turner (Bloomington, Ind.) and junior Trevor Noack (Keller, Texas) ripped the nets from behind the arc to give the Bruins a 49-46 lead with 10:53 to go.
The momentum continued, as a Mann three-pointer, a layin from senior Scott Saunders (New Orleans, La.) and a conventional three-point play from Barnes upped the lead to 57-48 with 7:37 left.
More strong defense and timely scoring allowed the Bruins to maintain a working margin, and when Mann broke Blue Raider pressure and found Jenkins for an easy slam, Belmont led 66-58 with 2:31 left in regulation.
But the plot would thicken. In the blink of an eye, MTSU ripped off nine points in 78 seconds to reclaim the lead. The run began with a baseline three-pointer from Knight to close the Blue Raiders within 66-61.
As sure-handed point guard Kerron Johnson (Huntsville, Ala.) proceeded to break MTSU pressure, Bruce Massey stole the ball and fed Cintron for a driving layin. Cintron would be fouled on the play, and convert the conventional three-point play to inch MTSU within 66-64 with 1:39 to go.
After a missed three-point attempt from Johnson, MTSU freed Cintron for a baseline three-pointer that gave the host team a 67-66 lead with 50 seconds remaining in regulation.
Unshaken by the quick turn of events, Belmont responded. Johnson drove the lane and found Clark for an open three-pointer that put the Bruins back ahead 69-67 with 43 seconds left.
MTSU proceeded to work its next possession, eventually with Knight earning a trip to the foul line on a drive. He sank both free throws to tie the game at 69 with 23 seconds remaining.
Following a Rick Byrd timeout, Belmont worked for the final shot of regulation to win. MTSU played 1-3-1 zone on the final possession of regulation. Hanlen's fadeaway baseline jumpshot to win at the buzzer rimmed off and the game went to overtime.
The first overtime started inauspiciously for the Bruins, as Saunders would pick up his fourth and fifth personal fouls in a two second span. With fellow post player Hedgepeth having already fouled out, Belmont was forced to play the remainder of the game without their two leading rebounders and post defenders.
Laron Dendy gave MTSU a 74-69 lead in the first overtime, before Johnson simply breathed new life into Belmont hopes. His seven unanswered points put the Bruins ahead 76-74 with 1:50 left in the first overtime.
Following another defensive stop, Belmont had an opportunity to stretch the lead to two possessions, but an interior pass from Jenkins to Noack misconnected.
Dendy would then score to tie the game at 76 with 39 seconds left in the first overtime.
On Belmont's final possession of the first overtime, the Bruins stayed patient, with Noack emerging in the corner as the clock wound down. But his potential game-winning shot rimmed off and a second overtime would ensue.
Dendy opened scoring in the second overtime before Clark equalized with a pullup jumpshot. That is when Mann rose to the occasion once again.
Both with gutsy defense and a flair for the dramatic, Mann scored seven straight points over a two minute span to give the Bruins an 85-80 lead with 40 seconds left in double overtime.
When Hanlen's two free throws stretched the lead to 87-80 with 24 seconds left, the outcome seemed secure.
However, Bruin players, coaches and fans would have to endure one final crazy sequence.
Bruce Massey would score on a drive with 18 seconds left to trim the margin to five. On the play, Johnson was whistled for a foul. Massey missed the subsequent free throw, but Belmont was unable to corral the long rebound and possession was awarded to MTSU.
A Dendy slam got MTSU within 87-84 with eight seconds left. Hanlen would be fouled on the inbounds play. The senior who has traditionally thrived in late-game free throw situations, uncharacteristically missed both free throws with seven seconds left, giving MTSU one final chance.
James Gallman's desperation three-pointer to force triple overtime came up short.
All told, Belmont shot 49 percent (35-for-72) from the field - including 8-for-29 from three-point distance. The Bruins forced 19 turnovers.
Poor free throw shooting plagued both teams; Belmont was 9-for-18 and MTSU was 16-for-30.
Mann led three Bruins in double figures with a career-high 19 points. Johnson chipped in 14 points and four assists, while Barnes tallied a new career-high 11 points.
Dency led MTSU (4-1) with 19 points.
Johnson was named EA Sports Maui Invitational Regional Games' Most Valuable Player.
Belmont (2-2) returns to action Monday, Nov. 28 against Trevecca Nazarene. Tip-off is set for 7:00pm CT from the Curb Event Center.
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.