CHARLESTON, Ill. - - Enduring an historically low three-point shooting game, Belmont University men's basketball dropped an 84-73 decision at Eastern Illinois Saturday afternoon.
Belmont opened conference play with hard-earned victories over Southeast Missouri and SIU Edwardsville, while the host Panthers rode a six-game winning streak and their first-ever 3-0 start in the OVC.
Belmont got off to a positive start with two defensive stops and a layin from sophomore Evan Bradds (Jamestown, Ohio).
Five points from sophomore Taylor Barnette (Lexington, Ky.) tied the score at seven at the first media timeout.
Eastern Illinois, despite leading the OVC in scoring defense, was a willing initiator of early offense, giving the Bruins the tempo they desired.
A wing three-pointer from sophomore Nick Smith (Bentonville, Ark.) tied the score at 10 seven minutes in, but Belmont continued to labor through head-scratching shooting.
The Bruins worked their halfcourt offense for traditionally, high-percentage, on-balance looks, but shots would not fall.
Nevertheless, strong offensive rebounding effort, led by Bradds, kept Belmont well-positioned.
A four-point play from LeTrell Viser gave Eastern Illinois a 21-14 lead with 9:40 left in the half.
But as more Bruin shots rimmed off, Reggie Smith capped an 8-0 Eastern Illinois run to make the score 31-21.
Following a slam from freshman Amanze Egekeze (Lake in the Hills, Ill.), a three-pointer from Luke Norman and five more Smith points increased the Panther lead to 39-23.
Barnette made a three-pointer to get Belmont within 13 at halftime.
Belmont shot 30 percent (11-for-37) from the field in the opening 20 minutes, including just 3-for-23 from three-point distance.
In need of a spark to open the second half, Chamberlain buried a wing three-pointer to cut the margin to 10. Consecutive baskets from junior Craig Bradshaw (Ridgetop, Tenn.) and Bradds kept the momentum going.
After another defensive stop, Belmont freed Smith for a wide-open three-pointer to get within five, but the shot dipped out.
The host Panthers then responded with six straight points to reclaim their double figure lead.
Eastern Illinois continued to utilize its substitution pattern of bringing leading scorers Chris Oliver, Trae Anderson, and Reggie Smith off the bench.
Moreover, the Panthers got a huge boost from reserve guard Luke Norman. Norman, who entered with eight total points on the season, scored 10 points in 23 minutes.
But consecutive three-pointers from Viser once again extinguished Bruin momentum.
As more Bruin looks rimmed off, and the Panthers got into transition, Eastern Illinois built a 64-46 lead with 8:07 left.
Undeterred despite the surreal shooting, Belmont simply kept battling. Baskets from Egekeze and Mercer inched the margin to 71-60 with 4:32 remaining.
But Bradshaw's shot to get the Bruins within eight rimmed off.
A Cornell Johnston floater gave Eastern Illinois a 76-62 edge with 2:16 left. But Belmont full court pressure and clock management extended the game.
Six Bradds points got Belmont within 78-71 with 1:18 left. After Anderson missed the front-end of a one-and-one, the Bruins had an opportunity to get within four with over one minute to play.
But in painful irony, another shot from distance - this from Bradshaw - rimmed off.
The Bruins would get within seven once more, but the Panthers made four three throws in the final 55 seconds to close the game.
All told, Belmont shot 38 percent (30-for-80) from the field - including just 7-for-43 from three-point distance, among its lowest three-point shooting outings since becoming an NCAA Division I member institution in 1996.
Belmont grabbed 19 offensive rebounds and forced 16 turnovers.
Bradds led three Bruins in double figures with 16 points and eight rebounds. Barnette had 15, while Chamberlain added 14 points, five rebounds, and five assists.
Olivier led Eastern Illinois (10-6, 4-0 OVC) with 16 points.
Belmont (10-6, 2-1 OVC) returns to game action Thursday, Jan. 15 at Murray State. Tip-off is set for 8 p.m. CT.
The game will be broadcast on ESPNU and the WatchESPN app. The live play-by-play of Voice of the Bruins Kevin Ingram can be heard on the Bruin Sports Network and 104.5 The Zone. In-game updates will be available on Twitter @BelmontMBB.