MURFREESBORO, Tenn. - - After overcoming a 13-point second half deficit to claim a lead in the final minutes, Belmont men's basketball dropped a 65-62 decision at Middle Tennessee State Tuesday.
The Bruins entered having defeated the host Blue Raiders five of the past six meetings, including an 87-84 double overtime victory Nov. 20. In fact, three of the last five games went past regulation, and this contest would again be hotly-contested.
The game began in strange fashion, with scheduled game official Ted Valentine physically unable to work the contest. Veteran officials Gary Maxwell and Doug Sirmons would work the game as a two-man crew.
Early on, however, Belmont weathered foul trouble for junior Ian Clark (Memphis, Tenn.) and poor shooting as Middle Tennessee State built a modest lead.
In fact, Bruin defense kept the team alive heading to halftime, trailing just 34-25 at the break despite enduring 33 percent shooting in the opening half.
Two MTSU baskets to open the second half widened the margin to 13, but the Bruins dug deep and simply willed themselves back into the game.
Strong halfcourt defense and timely shooting from senior Drew Hanlen (St. Louis, Mo.) allowed the Bruins to chip away. In fact, the Bruins would bounce back from a cold first half to sink their first five attempts from behind the arc in the second half.
Junior Kerron Johnson (Huntsville, Ala.) capped a 20-7 Belmont run with a driving layin to give the Bruins a 50-49 lead with 10:01 left.
Selective overzealousness and fouls hurt the Bruins, as Middle Tennessee State would be in the bonus with 9:11 left in the second half. All told, the Blue Raiders would take 24 free throw attempts in the second half.
Nevertheless, Belmont's lead grew to 59-54 with 5:12 left on a timely baseline three-pointer from redshirt junior Brandon Baker (Milford, Ohio).
From there, MTSU rode the play of Laron Dendy and JT Sulton.
Sulton's long jumpshot with 2:20 left tied the score at 61.
Following one Johnson free throw, Dendy found a cutting Sulton at the rim for an easy two, which put the Blue Raiders back ahead, 63-62, with 1:34 to go.
Following a Bruin empty possession, Dendy made one free throw with 40 seconds remaining to increase the margin to two.
From there, Belmont would remarkably get four chances to win or tie in the final 22 seconds, but nothing would fall.
A potential game-winning three-pointer from Clark with 21 seconds left would by blocked by the outstretched hand of Marcos Knight.
After a Bruin foul and two missed Knight free throws, Belmont would free sophomore J.J. Mann (Smyrna, Ga.) for a would-be game-winning three-point try, but this time Dendy would recover for a rejection at the arc.
Hanlen would grab the loose ball and drive, but his baseline attempt to tie would rim off.
Bruce Massey gathered the rebound and was fouled with 2.6 seconds left.
Massey proceeded to miss the first free throw and make the second, to give the Blue Raiders a 65-62 lead.
Belmont's final downcourt attempt to tie was tipped away by Knight at the horn.
The Bruins regrouped from the icy first half to shoot 57 percent (13-for-23) in the second half - including 7-for-12 from three-point distance.
Belmont's defense in the second half was also stout, holding the Blue Raiders without a field goal for a nine minute stretch.
Hanlen led four Bruins in double figures with 16 points. Johnson added 15 points and five assists. Clark and Baker each scored 11.
Dendy led Middle Tennessee State (10-2) with 20 points.
Belmont (6-3, 2-0 Atlantic Sun) returns to action Thursday, Dec. 15 vs. Troy. Tip-off is set for 7:00 p.m. 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.