A 15-point, first-half lead turned into a five-point overtime deficit.
Yet, Belmont coach Rick Byrd sounded relieved not disappointed after the Bruins escaped Middle Tennessee State and Murfreesboro with an 87-84 win in double overtime last month.
“I think MTSU is so good that a win is outstanding,” Byrd said. “I think at the end of the year we’ll probably realize how good that is.”
Middle Tennessee State wants to make sure it is just one win.
The Blue Raiders get another crack at Belmont, just three weeks after the two met in the regional championship game of the Maui Invitational. MTSU (9-2) hosts the Bruins once again, with tip-off at 7 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN3.com/WSNR 560 AM).
“We’re going to put that game behind us and, most of all, we’re coming out to get a win just like they are,” Blue Raiders forward JT Sulton said. “Hopefully, we can get the win this time and not be defeated on our court twice.”
This game was scheduled long before the Maui Invitational field had been announced, thus making for a rare second meeting for the non-conference foes.
Belmont (6-2) has won four straight in the series, with the last two decided in double overtime.
Since losing consecutive games to Duke and Memphis — top 10 teams at the time — the Bruins have rattled off six straight victories with six players averaging at least nine points. While they’ve blown by some opponents, they’ve had more close calls than they did a year ago during a 30-5 season. The Bruins held on against sold competition in MTSU and Mercer, along with needing a second-half surge to put away Tennessee State last week.
“Our pre-conference schedule is going to be far more difficult than it has been ever before,” Byrd said. “So we’re going to have more close calls and we’re very, very likely to have several more defeats than we had a year ago. I’m honestly just concerned about us improving and being a better team at the end of this year than we were a year ago at the end of the year because that is when it all matters.”
The Blue Raiders are off to their best start in more than 30 years and have won five of six since falling to Belmont. Their only hiccup came in a 66-56 loss last week to defending Conference-USA champ UAB. The Blazers had struggled, though, and were just 1-6 entering the game.
MTSU was without junior forward Jason Jones and guard Kerry Hammonds played just four minutes due to a foot injury.
“Both of those guys in there, at the same time, healthy, really make us a better team,” MTSU coach Kermit Davis said.
Jones, the team’s top returning scorer, has played in only six games due to a back injury. The situation was compounded when an epidermal shot for the injury caused a blood clot, which has led to numbness in his legs.
He will undergo an MRI on Friday and Davis hopes to have a better idea of when he will return after that. Hammonds, the team’s top 3-point shooter, will be out until after Christmas.
“No excuses, UAB played great that night. They are a good team. They’ve had some tough losses,” Davis said. “Did we miss [Jones and Hammonds]? Yeah, we missed them. But it is just one of those things you’ve got to absorb. ... Another guy’s misfortune is another guy’s opportunity.”
Even without the key contributors, the Blue Raiders are shooting spectacularly. They are tied with Campbell for the country’s best field-goal shooting percentage (53.5). They also rank eighth in the nation by converting 43 percent of their 3-pointers.
Like Belmont, they are using depth, with 10 players averaging at least 12 minutes. With seven newcomers, transfers LaRon Dendy and Marcos Knight lead the charge. Dendy, a 6-foot-9 senior, leads the team in scoring (14.2 ppg) and rebounding (6.5 rpg). Knight, a 6-2 junior guard, is averaging 13.6 points in addition to 32 assists and 52.4 percent shooting from 3-point range.
Davis said the success stems from the work put in between the games.
“We have been a really good practice team. I don’t know if we were as good of a practice team the day before we went to UAB,” Davis said. “We are a humble group. They have had really good practices since UAB and after UT-Martin [on Saturday]. They like going to the gym, which I love. They love going to the gym. They have a smile on the face before going into the gym. That is all always a great sign — they are looking forward to their next game.”