Belmont buckles down on defense, splits non-conference series with Marshall

Thursday, December 29, 2011 at 11:56pm

The first time around, Marshall delivered the knockout blow. Belmont made sure there wouldn’t be a second time.

In a rare non-conference rematch — just 10 days after their first meeting — the Bruins smothered the Thundering Herd early and withstood a furious rally for a 79-74 victory at the Curb Event Center on Thursday night.

Belmont (9-5) fell to Marshall (9-3) by one point on Dec. 19, but the Bruins set the tone early defensively and won their 22nd straight game at home — the eighth longest streak in the country.

“We just wanted to match their energy,” guard Kerron Johnson said. “I think we came out with a little chip on our shoulder. We felt like we had to prove something.”

Belmont led by as many as 16 in the second half and was up by 13 with 2:39 remaining. But the Herd scored 14 of the next 18 points. Fueled by eight points from Damier Pitts and two blocks from their big men, they cut the deficit to 75-72 with 1:03 left on Pitts second straight 3-pointer.

After a missed jumper in the lane by Johnson, Marshall had a chance to tie but Dago Pena’s 3-point attempt from the corner was off the mark.

Mick Hedgepeth, who was battling a cold, drilled two free throws to seal the victory — just a minute after missing two from the line.

“I was really proud of Mick. He hadn’t been shooting free throws well,” Belmont coach Rick Byrd said. “To miss two and to come back and make the two that pretty much sewed up the game, that is tough to do mentally.”

Neither team made a 3-pointer until Johnson did so and broke a 14-14 tie with 8:01 left in the first half. Trevor Noack followed up with another. Ian Clark then plucked a steal and fed it to Johnson, who dished a nice no-look pass to Scott Saunders for an easy layup.

Belmont pushed the lead to 27-15 on five straight points from J.J. Mann, who capped off the 13-1 spurt with a 3-pointer at the 5:13 mark.

Marshall, which lost by just six to No. 1 Syracuse, had won four straight and positioned itself as a contender for the Conference USA regular-season championship.

The Herd looked out of sorts early, though, as Belmont forced off-balanced shots and kept leading scorer Pitts at bay. The senior guard had just two points at halftime on 1-of-9 shooting. The Bruins kept their hands active, too, deflecting many passes and forcing 16 turnovers.

Pounding the paint also was an emphasis for Belmont. Johnson and Drew Hanlen each had five assists, many going inside to Saunders, who finished with 23 points. The Bruins outscored Marshall 40-26 in the paint.

“Up there 10 days ago, we let them score 87 points,” Saunders said. “They are a good team but defense is something we have to be able to hang our hat on. ... I think it was just a matter of being the aggressor. Coach said one of the differences between last year and this year is that last year we were hungrier defensively. We were more of the aggressors and the ones wanting to make plays rather than reacting to what they do.”

Briefly

• DeAndre Kane scored a game-high 25 points and was one of four Marshall players to score in double figures.

Johnson had 16 for Belmont and returned after injuring his ankle 6:34 left. He stepped on a Marshall player’s foot, immediately going to the ground and wincing in pain.

“I felt it pop. I was just a little worried,” Johnson, the team’s leading scorer, said. “I’ve got to get an X-ray [Friday]. We’ll see from there.”

• The last time Belmont played Marshall, Byrd wasn’t allowed in the arena.

Nearly two weeks ago, he was ejected in a game against Miami (Ohio) after receiving two technical fouls in a matter of seconds. By Atlantic Sun Conference rule he was suspended from Belmont’s next game, which was at Marshall.

It was just the second game he has missed in his 31 years of coaching. He was absent 10 years ago at Virginia due to an illness. Byrd had been ejected from a game only one other time in his career.

“It makes a difference,” Saunders said. “I think all the assistants came away with more respect for what Coach Byrd does, as far as substitutions, play-calling and subbing at particular times down the stretch of the game.”