Belmont Coach Rick Byrd has coached in more than 1,000 games in his career.
“Only two or three of them ended on a last second shot,'' he said after senior Kerron Johnson floated a jumper in over Murray State's 6-7 center Ed Daniel. It left Murray less than a second to get a shot off. It was the final bucket that proved the difference in a 70-68 thriller that handed Belmont its third consecutive automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Belmont had to weather two difficult match ups in Tennessee State and Murray. The games were 24 hours apart and there was no rest for the weary.
“These two games were harder to win than any semi(final) and finals ever in the Atlantic Sun,'' said Byrd, whose Bruins moved from the Atlantic Sun to the OVC this season. “We had to beat two teams as good or better than any two teams in the Atlantic Sun. They were just tougher games.''
Senior guard Kerron Johnson echoed Byrd's comments. You would have thought Johnson had been involved in a 15-round heavyweight championship boxing match. His chin was bandaged. It required stitches after he was taken to the floor as he tried to drive the lane for a lay-up. There were no easy baskets in this game.
After all, Murray State has for years been the bell cow of OVC basketball. The Racers were not going to lie down for any new kids on the block and their fan base showed up in impressive numbers at Municipal in hopes of adding another NCAA tournament appearance and the hardware that goes with that.
But Belmont and Murray slugged it out for 40 minutes, then the Bruins had to work overtime to secure a ticket to the Big Dance.
“If you coach long enough you're going to be in a game like this,'' Byrd said. “I think the closest we came was when we won in overtime against Lipscomb in the Atlantic Sun when we got to go the first time.''
Murray had a shot to end it in regulation with the ball out of bounds in front of the Belmont bench and 6.2 seconds remaining. Reserve Latreze Mushatt launched a desperation jumper at the buzzer that missed the mark.
When the teams traded six points in the five-minute overtime session, it was Belmont's turn to try to win it on a final shot.
Byrd had a play they had talked about that day, but Murray scotched that and refused to let them initiate the planned play.
“We just went to plan whatever it was, which it was what we had done all night long and that was to go set a ball screen for Kerron. They were switching ball screens at that point. They did that late in the game and they did on that play, so he had to put a big time fade-away on it to get it over Daniel, a great athlete, a long athlete and great jumper.''
Murray State Coach Steve Prohm thought his team missed an opportunity to win it in regulation, but gave credit where credit was due.
“It was a great championship game. Both teams were resilient and both teams went on runs during the game. We weren't able to close the game but credit Belmont to find a way to get it to overtime,'' Frohm said.
“Kerron made a terrific shot at the end, made a tough shot over Ed. It was frustrating how the game ended and I'll take the blame for that.''
For Byrd and his flock, it's another chance to attempt to get out of the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It remains to be seen what seed the Bruins will receive next Sunday.
To a player and a coach, they know how hard it was to get there this time.
Contact wkrn.com Sports Columnist Joe Biddle at firstname.lastname@example.org.