It was down and out for Coach Rick Byrd’s Belmont Bruins in the OVC semifinals Friday night.
Jacksonville State made 52.1 percent of its shots for the game while the Bruins, who sat out with a double bye in the tournament hit only 36.7 of its shots from the field.
“I told my wife coming over here that it was an even game,’’ Byrd said as his team now hopes to get an NIT bid with a 22-6 record. “I told our guys during that 8-12 minute stretch that they were making their shots and we weren’t.’’
Jacksonville State Coach Ray Harper, who formerly coached at Western Kentucky, relied on a strong performance from his backcourt of Malcolm Drumwright, who led all scorers with 21 points, and Greg Tucker, who added18 points and six assists in 37 points.
“That is one heck of a basketball team that we just beat,’’ Harper said of Belmont. “They went 15-1 in the league for a reason. They have one of the best basketball coaches in all of college basketball.’’
“I thought every one that stepped on the floor contributed and the ones that didn’t step on the floor contributed in some way,’’ Harper said of his team that will play for an NCAA Tournament bid Saturday.
Byrd gave Jacksonville State all the credit.
“I thought the team that played the best game won the game,’’ Byrd said. “They made more tough shots than us. They played with a lot of confidence and hurt us in the second half with two many second shots.’’
It was 31-30 at halftime, with Jax State holding a one-point lead. They had an 11-point lead at one point in the first half before Belmont rallied to climb within one.
In the second half, Jacksonville State’s backcourt went to work, using their quickness to get shots off.
“We want to make people to take tough 2-point shots and they made a lot of tough 2’s,’’ Byrd said.
“They’re very good guards and if they play like they did tonight, they will be up here (press conference) tomorrow night, too.’’
Byrd said this team was the best team he had coached in terms of playing for each other, for doing what he asked them to do.
This year likely has more hoops in store for the Bruins. The NIT saw Belmont take Clemson to the wire at Clemson last season.
“Their fans stormed the court when they beat Belmont,’’ Byrd said, knowing Clemson is one of the so-called Power Five conferences in the Atlantic Coast Conference while Belmont is an Ohio Valley Conference team that doesn’t get the credit it deserves.
Belmont All-American Evan Bradds led Belmont with 16 points and 8 rebounds. Bradds was followed in scoring by Dylan Windler with 16 points and Austin Luke with 11 points.
In the end, Jacksonville State won 65-59.
Bradds was visibly disappointed.
“Obviously it sucks, That is just how it goes sometimes. Sometimes you win and other times you lose,’’ he said. “If this is the worst thing I have to deal with every day, then I am doing alright. … This is one of the better teams I have been on here and the most fun team I have been a part of.’’
Joe Biddle is a WKRN.com sports columnist. He is also a member of the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.