Looking back, it wasn’t an awful loss. But at the time it didn’t feel that way.
When USC Upstate’s Torrey Craig grabbed that offensive rebound and hit the game-winning jumper with 0.7 seconds left, a shockwave swept over the Belmont bench.
There wasn’t much to be said that could comfort the Bruins on Jan. 21. They had just blown a 16-point halftime lead on the road to a team that finished last in the Atlantic Sun Conference in 2010-11. It was the Spartans’ first win ever — in nine tries — against Belmont.
“It was rough in the locker room and I don’t mean I was rough,” Belmont coach Rick Byrd said. “We led the entire game until .7 seconds left and we knew we had totally let one get away. Then we watched the video it was worst than we thought. It was a tough day.”
Upstate turned out to be a much different team.
Starting with that game, the Spartans won 10 of 12 — their only losses on the road to the league’s top two teams, Belmont and Mercer — and finished third in the conference. On Monday, three of the league’s top four honors went to Upstate — coach of the year (Eddie Payne), player of the year (Craig) and freshman of the year (Ty Greene). All three were key components of a 20-win season — 15 more victories than last year.
Of course, Belmont didn’t know this five weeks ago. Not that it would have mattered.
“No loss is ever good,” forward Mick Hedgepeth said.
That setback ignited a fire. The Bruins won 11 straight games, avenged the loss to Upstate and outscored opponents by 19.3 points on their way to their fifth conference championship in seven years.
Belmont (24-7, 16-2) rides that hot streak, which is tied for the sixth longest in the nation, into this week’s Atlantic Sun Tournament. The top-seeded Bruins play No. 8 seed Jacksonville (8-21, 6-12) at 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday in Macon, Ga. Belmont hopes to win the tournament title for the second straight year and fifth and final time before it leaves to join the Ohio Valley Conference next season.
“We didn’t show up in the second half [against Upstate] and I don’t know the explanation. But I think maybe they got it,” Byrd said. “We didn’t play well against Lipscomb at home [in a loss on Jan. 6], we didn’t think, and they didn’t get it. But since that bad half at Upstate they’ve been ready to play and have played well.”
Over the last month, Byrd said his squad has played as well as last year’s team, which won 30 games and reached the NCAA Tournament.
The Bruins average 82.1 points — the second most in the nation — and lead the conference with 8.8 3-pointers a game. Senior guard Drew Hanlen ranks second in the country in 3-point shooting percentage (48.6).
The defense is improving. Led by the A-Sun’s defensive player of the year, guard Ian Clark, they allow just 67.6 points a game. Byrd says the mid-season decision to insert 6-foot-7 forward Blake Jenkins into the starting lineup over starting two centers — Hedgepeth (6-9) or Scott Saunders (6-10) — has provided a better defensive matchup with opposing small forwards.
Jenkins is expected to be back in the lineup on Wednesday after sitting out last Saturday’s game at Mercer with an ankle injury.
Leading scorer and junior guard Kerron Johnson (14.0 ppg), however, is questionable. Back spasms kept him out of the lineup Saturday and Byrd said “he would not have been able to play well” if the game had been on Monday.
“He is really important to our team,” Byrd said before practice on Tuesday. “We scored 62 points without those two guys [at Mercer] and we’ve been scoring close to 90. Those are the two guys — Kerron the most — that get us easy, no Xs and Os by the coach kind of baskets just because he can penetrate and make things happen.”
Byrd called Jacksonville the toughest eight seed he’s seen since the Bruins joined the A-Sun more than 10 years ago. The Dolphins have won four of their last six, which includes a win over No. 2 seed and tournament host Mercer, and their athleticism presents matchup problems for Belmont.
The Bruins swept the season series by a combined 26 points. But in the last meeting — at Belmont on Jan. 28 — the game was tied with 10 minutes left before the Bruins pulled away.
“We’re going to have that edge going into this week,” Hedgepeth said. “I don’t want to be one of those teams on the bubble [for the NCAA Tournament] and I don’t even know if we would be if we didn’t win our conference tournament. So I think, absolutely, we have to go down there with that attitude that we have to win to punch our ticket.”