RICHMOND, Ky. - - Belmont University men's basketball dropped an 81-69 decision at Eastern Kentucky Thursday night.
It was the first meeting between the Bruins and Colonels since the 2014 OVC Championship game, where Eastern Kentucky denied Belmont from becoming the first NCAA Division I men's basketball program since Gonzaga (2004-07) to win four consecutive conference regular season and tournament championships.
And though the names and faces had changed somewhat, Belmont and Eastern Kentucky continued to feature three-point shooting and tremendous halfcourt execution.
Early baskets from freshman Amanze Egekeze (Lake in the Hills, Ill.) and sophomore Evan Bradds (Jamestown, Ohio) gave Belmont a 5-3 lead. But Ja'Mill Powell capped a 10-0 Eastern Kentucky run with a wing three-pointer.
A layin from freshman Mack Mercer (Plymouth, Ind.) got the Bruins within 13-9, before the Colonels continued their hot start. Turning defense into offense, Corey Walden scored five straight points to extend the Eastern Kentucky lead to 22-9 less than eight minutes in.
Following a timeout from Belmont head coach Rick Byrd, the Bruins answered with scores from Bradds and sophomore Taylor Barnette (Lexington, Ky.).
But the Colonels' sizzling outside shooting persisted. Treys from Denzel Richardson and Timmy Knipp gave the hosts a 31-16 lead with 7:18 left in the half.
In need of a spark, senior Reece Chamberlain (Goodlettsville, Tenn.) spearheaded a Belmont comeback. Consecutive layins from sophomore Caleb Chowbay (Mt. Juliet, Tenn.) and a baseline Chamberlain three-pointer highlighted a 12-0 Belmont response and made the score 31-28 with 4:18 remaining in the half.
Yet just as the Bruins had seemingly recovered from the early Eastern Kentucky haymakers, the Colonels closed the half well.
Six straight points from Eric Stutz and a three-pointer from Knipp - who adroitly avoided picking up a fourth personal foul - enabled Eastern Kentucky to lead 40-29 at halftime.
Belmont shot 57 percent (12-for-21) from the field in the opening 20 minutes - including 4-for-11 from three-point distance. But 10 Bruin turnovers and eight Colonel three-pointers in the first half largely told the story.
The second half started in fine fashion, as the Bruins strung together four defensive stops. Two three-pointers from Barnette capped a 10-0 run and made the score 40-39 with 17:31 remaining.
But just as the Bruins appeared poised to storm ahead, Eastern Kentucky would have a reply. A conventional three-point play from Powell and another Knipp three-pointer increased the margin back to nine.
After a Chowbay short jumper got the Bruins back within five, 48-43, with 13:59 remaining, Eastern Kentucky stormed back with two layins from Walden and a Stutz slam.
Despite junior Craig Bradshaw (Ridgetop, Tenn.) nursing foul trouble and the Colonels leading 63-48 with 8:40 left, Belmont continued to fight.
An Egekeze three-pointer trimmed the margin to 63-55 with 6:39 left.
But again Stutz had an answer, this time with a straight-on three-pointer.
Despite the barrage of EKU three-point shooting and a raucous home crowd, the Bruins would not go away.
A series of defensive stops and a three-point play from Mercer got Belmont within 67-61 with 4:19 remaining.
But four straight points from the ultra-efficient Stutz extinguished the run.
A Chamberlain three-pointer got Belmont within 72-65 with 2:53 remaining, but Eastern Kentucky worked the shot clock and scored two successive possessions.
A Barnette three-pointer and a Colonel turnover provided one final breath of life, yet as Bradds elevated to get the Bruins within six points with under two minutes left, the ball was tipped away.
All told, Belmont shot 53 percent (25-for-47) from the field - including 10-for-26 from three-point distance. The Bruins outrebounded Eastern Kentucky, 28-20. But 12-for-23 Eastern Kentucky three-point shooting proved too much to overcome.
Chamberlain and Barnette led three Bruins in double figures with 14 points each. Bradds recorded his fifth double-double with 11 points and 12 rebounds.
Stutz led Eastern Kentucky (13-9, 5-4 OVC) with a career-high 27 points.
Belmont (15-8, 7-3 OVC) returns to game action Saturday, Feb. 7 at Morehead State. Tip-off is set for 7:30 p.m. ET/6:30 p.m. CT.
The game will be broadcast on OVC Digital Network. 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.