The Belmont Bruins were the unquestioned top team in the Ohio Valley Conference this year, as was evidenced by the school’s seventh OVC regular-season championship.
However, two straight losses that ended a 30-game conference win streak and a 21-game overall run left a bad taste in the Bruins’ mouths. Fortunately for them, they exorcised those demons with a 78-61 win over SIU Edwardsville on Wednesday in the quarterfinals of the OVC Tournament at the Ford Center in Evansville, Indiana.
“It was a game we needed,” Belmont coach Casey Alexander said. "We were coming off a tough weekend where we didn’t play as we needed to play, we had two losses which hadn’t happened in a long time, and I felt like our players were renewed and energized and came with the right mentality. I felt like we kept our composure and just kept our head down and played with a pretty comfortable margin in the second half.”
Added OVC Defensive Player of the Year Grayson Murphy: “Especially with the way we finished the regular season, we felt we didn’t play up to the standard of Belmont. It’s good to get back on track and have some confidence going into the next game.”
The Bruins got balanced scoring from JaCobi Wood, who led all scorers with 19 points, while Caleb Hollander added 17, Murphy scored 13 and Luke Smith chipped in 10 points.
Although leading scorer Nick Muszynski returned to the Belmont lineup after missing a few games with an injury, he didn’t quite look like himself. The 6-foot-11 junior averages 15 points and 5.4 rebounds per game but was limited to five points, five boards, two blocks and two assists on Wednesday.
“Our team is much more comfortable when he’s in the game,” Alexander said. “Even if he’s not getting big numbers, he commands so much of the defense’s attention that everything else runs a lot smoother. [...] He’s definitely not 100 percent but he’ll shake the rust off a little bit and build some confidence in that ankle and hopefully Friday he’ll be a step or two better.”
Prior to Wednesday’s tournament opener, Alexander stated he believed the Bruins were still the best team in the league despite the consecutive losses heading into the tournament. Their performance on Wednesday seemed to back up those claims, although Belmont still has two more games left to prove Alexander right.
The Bruins have an off day on Thursday and will face the winner of Thursday night’s quarterfinal game between No. 4 Jacksonville State and No. 5 Murray State. Belmont swept both regular-season series against the Gamecocks and Racers.
“There’s only one agenda (on a day off) and that’s to rest,” Alexander added. “We won’t even know who we’re playing until about midnight (Thursday night) so, we’ll prepare for both teams. We’ve got, I think, a 30-minute practice scheduled on the floor. So, we’ll walk through some things, but really it’s all about rest and just trying to stay fresh.”
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_