MURFREESBORO, Tenn. - - Behind 24 points from senior Amanze Egekeze (Lake in the Hills, Ill.), Belmont University men's basketball defeated Middle Tennessee, 69-63, Thursday night.
72 hours after defeating Nashville neighbor Vanderbilt, Belmont remained hungry and purposeful against one of the nation's most talented teams in the Blue Raiders.
In fact, Belmont's early execution prompted a series of quick Middle Tennessee timeouts to caucus and assess matters.
Thereafter, the Bruins endured a brief drought as Giddy Potts capped an 8-0 Middle Tennessee run to close the margin to two.
Points proved hard to come by as both teams showcased strong, unified defense becoming teams with championship pedigrees.
3-pointers from McClain and junior Dylan Windler (Indianapolis, Ind.) made the score 27-23 with 1:56 left in the half.
A twisting Luke layin sent the Bruins to the locker room up two, 29-27, at halftime.
Belmont shot 42 percent (11-for-26) from the field in the opening 20 minutes - including 5-for-12 from 3-point distance.
Egekeze led Belmont with 10 first half points.
Belmont started the second half in determined fashion, as baskets from McClain, Windler, Egekeze and a conventional 3-point play from Mercer stretched the lead to 39-34 with 16:53 left.
The Bruins had to withstand a rare perimeter foray from Middle Tennessee big man, Brandon Walters. The 6-10 center, who entered play with one career 3-point field goal attempt, sank a straight-on 3-pointer then rimmed out a heat check moments later.
After a Karl Gamble basket got the Blue Raiders within three, Egekeze again sparked a Bruin push.
Two Egekeze triples around five points from freshman Nick Hopkins (Fayetteville, Tenn.) extended the lead to 14, 50-36, with 13:13 remaining.
Belmont was assertive and playing together on both ends, building a hard-earned lead.
But in lightning-quick fashion, Middle Tennessee responded. Spirited play from David Simmons and Nick King began the comeback cause, and when Giddy Potts scored inside, the Blue Raiders closed within one, 52-51, with 9:14 left.
A Potts 3-pointer and a Walters offensive rebound basket capped a 20-2 Middle Tennessee run over five minutes, and gave the hosts as 56-52 lead with 8:02 left.
It was a jarring turn of events, as Belmont's commanding lead was gone.
Yet as the partisan home crowd came to life and the Bruins took a standing 8-count, head coach Rick Byrd stabilized the proceedings with a trademark offensive play.
A backdoor slam from Windler cut the margin in half, and served notice that Belmont wasn't going anywhere.
Consecutive defensive stops and layins from McClain and Egekeze put the Bruins back on top with 6:51 left, a lead they would not relinquish.
In fact, Belmont held Middle Tennessee scoreless for a four-plus minute stretch, punctuated by a laser-focused Egekeze 3-pointer with 2:35 left that gave the Bruins a 65-58 edge.
Though Belmont endured two near misses on offense, strong defense forced a tough long distance delivery from King with under a minute to go.
A Windler rebound and two McClain free throws followed to make the score 67-61 with 39 seconds left.
Luke made two more free throws moments later to provide the final outcome.
All told, Belmont shot 45 percent from the field (24-for-53) - including 10-for-22 from 3-point distance. Belmont outrebounded Middle Tennessee, 36-32.
In addition to Egekeze's 24, McClain added a career-high 14 points, while Windler posted his third consecutive double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds.
Luke had 11 assists.
King led Middle Tennessee (2-1) with 21 points.
Belmont (2-1) returns to game action Saturday vs. Houston Baptist in the 2K Classic Benefiting Wounded Warrior Project. Tip-off is set for 3:30 p.m. CT from the Curb Event Center. 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. In-game updates will be available via Twitter @BelmontMBB.
NOTES: Belmont has won eight of the last 11 games in the series with Middle Tennessee ... Opponents are 14-81 at MTSU since 2011-12; Belmont has three of those victories ... Egekeze tied a career-high with six 3-point field goals ... Windler entered the season with three career double-doubles; he now has six ... Luke's 11 assists were his most since Jan. 21, 2017 vs. Tennessee Tech ... Belmont held MTSU to three field goals the final 8:02 of the game ... McClain's previous career-high was 13 (vs. Cleveland State, 12/22/16) ... Hopkins scored seven points on his 20th birthday ... Belmont had a strong fan support section in attendance.