On Friday evening at the Curb Event Center, the Belmont Bruins beat the Tennessee State University Tigers, 68-63, in the 2017 regular season finale.
Being Senior Day, Evan Bradds, Nick Smith, and Taylor Barnette were called to the center of the court prior to tipoff so that Bruins’ fans could express appreciation for each player’s four-year commitment to the program.
The matchup played out in familiar Belmont fashion: a slow start but strong finish.
The Bruins struggled to hit shots in the first quarter, particularly against a stout TSU defense that confused Belmont by continually “mixing it up,” according to Barnette.
“When we would call [a play] for a specific way [the Tigers] were playing, sometimes they didn’t play the way we thought they would,” he said. “So it caused for some confusion.”
As a result, Belmont scored a measly 26 points through the first half. In fact, through the first twenty minutes of play, the team shot 3-of-16 (19%) from beyond the arc and 7-of-24 (29%) from the floor.
The second half, however, was entirely different. Belmont shot 57 percent from the floor, scored 10 points at the free throw line, and limited the Tigers’ high-scorers Wayne Martin and Tahjere McCall.
“I don’t know what happened in the first half, but it wasn’t very good,” said Bradds. “Coach [Rick] Byrd preaches ‘just keep shooting the ball, take good shots.’ And that’s what we did in the second half, and that’s probably why we shot 57 percent.”
Bradds was the team’s leading scorer. He shot a perfect 10-of-10 from the floor, snagged seven rebounds, dished out one assist, and perhaps most importantly, made two free throws in the final seconds of play to eliminate the potential of a TSU comeback.
It seems fitting that on Senior Day and on the final regular season game of his career, Bradds was the hero. Through the past four years he has been a bastion of consistency for the Bruins, leading the nation in field goal percentage in 2016 and ranking 21st in same category this season.
“This place has been so good to me the past four years,” said Bradds. “I’ve been extremely blessed to play here, so I’m for sure going to miss it, but that’s part of why I get to go play at Municipal on Friday.”
The Ohio Valley Conference (OVC) Tournament takes place at Municipal Stadium next week, and as Bradds eluded, the Bruins begin play on Friday night since they are the No. 1 seed of the Conference.
Belmont was also the top seed in last year’s OVC Tournament, but in their first matchup they lost by one point to the Austin Peay, who went on to beat UT Martin in the championship game.
The Bruins acknowledge that their loss to Austin Peay resulted, in part, from a poor mindset, since they entered the OVC Tournament on a three-game losing streak.
This is not the case in 2017. With their win over Tennessee State on Friday night, Belmont enters the OVC Tournament with a four-game win streak, which gives players confidence to perform better than last season.
“I think it’s a big win for us,” said junior Austin Luke, “because last year we didn’t close [the regular season] well, and I don’t think we went into the tournament with the same mindset. So I think [this win] is big for our confidence.”
“I hate going into anything with a loss,” said Bradds. “We ended last year 0-3, so taking the momentum we have [right now] and pushing it into March is big for us.”
The OVC Tournament begins on Wednesday night when Tennessee State (8) faces Southeast Missouri (5), and when Murray State (7) faces Tennessee Tech (6). The respective winner of each matchup advances to the quarterfinals to play Jacksonville State (4) and Morehead State (3). Those respective winners then advance to the semifinals, where Belmont (1) and UT Martin (2) wait.
The winner of the tournament automatically qualifies for a bid in the 2017 NCAA tournament.