NASHVILLE, Tenn. - - Belmont University men's basketball rode hot shooting and defensive stops late to defeat Southeast Missouri, 78-77, Thursday afternoon.
The Bruins, opening OVC play at home after three weeks on the road, looked to replicate offensive performances in their first two meetings with the Redhawks. Belmont scored 107 points each of the last two seasons, including a 107-94 shootout victory in Cape Girardeau last season.
After Southeast Missouri scored six of the first eight points, a layin from junior Craig Bradshaw (Ridgetop, Tenn.) and a three-pointer from freshman Amanze Egekeze (Lake in the Hills, Ill.) gave Belmont an early 7-6 lead.
A Bradshaw slam, four free throws from sophomore Evan Bradds (Jamestown, Ohio), and a deep three-pointer from sophomore Taylor Barnette (Lexington, Ky.) increased the lead to 18-14 six and a half minutes in.
Three-pointers from Bradshaw and sophomore Nick Smith (Bentonville, Ark.) pushed the lead to seven before Nino Johnson answered with five straight points.
Bradshaw continued his torrid pace with consecutive makes from behind the arc before a layin from senior Reece Chamberlain (Goodlettsville, Tenn.) gave the Bruins a 39-29 advantage with 4:42 left in the half.
Preseason All-OVC selection Jarekious Bradley got going late in the haf, and coupled with a baseline three-pointer from Isiah Jones, the Redhawks closed within 44-41 with 29 seconds left in the half.
But Barnette would reply with a clutch three-pointer before the first half buzzer to send Belmont to the locker room up six, 47-41.
Belmont shot 58 percent (15-for-26) from the field in the opening 20 minutes - including 8-for-16 from three-point distance. But Southeast Missouri was up to the challenge from long range as well. Entering at just 26 percent as a team from three-point distance, the Redhawks went 6-for-11 in the first half.
The Bruins got a positive start to the second half, as baskets from Bradshaw and Bradds made the score 51-41 with 18:21 remaining.
Moreover, Belmont limited Southeast Missouri to one made field goal in the first 4:35 of the second half, as a Bradshaw three-pointer pushed the lead to 55-44 with 15:57 left.
But foul trouble plagued the Bruins, as Egekeze and Smith nursed foul difficulty much of the second half. That led Belmont head coach Rick Byrd into some unusual frontcourt rotations.
In addition, the Redhawks showed little resemblance of a 63 percent free throw shooting team, confidently going 20-for-26 from the charity stripe for the game.
Put together, a Johnson layin trimmed the margin to 59-57 with 11:10 left.
Smith and Egekeze would answer with a flurry of three-pointers - two each in a span of 2:13 - to give the Bruins a 71-64 advantage with 8:38 remaining.
Southeast Missouri would scratch and claw for loose ball rebounds and close within 71-68 on an Aaron Adeoye basket.
But in perhaps the biggest minutes of his young career, freshman Austin Luke (Rowlett, Texas) would deliver a strong driving layin to stretch the lead back to five.
Following three defensive stops, Bradshaw buried his fifth three-pointer of the game to give Belmont a 76-68 lead with 5:10 to go.
From there, both teams missed promising scoring opportunities during a 2:40 dry spell.
Two free throws from J.J. Thompson and an Isiah Jones three-pointer got Southeast Missouri within 76-73 with 2:14 left.
Meanwhile, Belmont dialed up wide open looks for Smith, who had a series of shots dip in and out. But after an offensive rebound, Bradshaw scored inside to push the Bruins back to a 78-73 lead with 1:45 to go.
Two more Thompson free throws cut the margin back to three. Moments later, Bradley appeared to have a Redhawk steal near midcourt, but upon passing to a teammate, was called for a backcourt violation.
After another Smith near miss, Bradley sank a 17-footer to make the score 78-77 with 43 seconds left.
Following a Coach Byrd timeout, Belmont freed Bradshaw, whose long two-point attempt rimmed off. Southeast Missouri secured the rebound and raced into the frontcourt looking to take the lead.
But as Thompson eyed a teammate in front of the Redhawk bench, a sprawling Bradshaw intercepted the pass and saved the ball inbounds to Chamberlain to give Belmont possession.
Chamberlain would be fouled with 3.8 seconds remaining.
After some housekeeping and a timeout, Chamberlain would miss the front end of a one-and-one free throw opportunity. However, the Bruins played stout defense, keeping Southeast Missouri in the backcourt and denying any final shot attempt.
All told, Belmont shot 50 percent (27-for-54) from the field, including 14-for-31 from three-point distance. The Bruins outrebounded Southeast Missouri, 34-31, and forced 14 turnovers.
Bradshaw led three Bruins in double figures with 25 points, five steals, and three rebounds. Bradds had 14 points, while Chamberlain narrowly missed a triple-double, tallying 10 points, nine rebounds and nine assists.
Bradley led Southeast Missouri (6-8, 0-1 OVC) with 20 points.
Belmont (9-5, 1-0 OVC) returns to game action Wednesday, Jan. 7 versus SIU Edwardsville. Tip-off is set for 8 p.m. CT from the Curb Event Center.
The game will be broadcast live on CBS Sports Network. The live play-by-play of Voice of the Bruins Kevin Ingram can be heard on the Bruin Sport Network. In-game updates will be available on Twitter @BelmontMBB.
NOTES: Belmont has won 12 of its last 13 conference openers ... Coach Byrd has 698 career victories.