JOE BIDDLE: Belmont staying home alone for Big Dance - WKRN News 2

JOE BIDDLE: Belmont staying home alone for Big Dance

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -

Belmont had been to the NCAA Tournament six of the last eight years.

It has been since 2010 that the Bruins have missed an invitation to the Big Dance.

But when Eastern Kentucky withstood a second half rally to take a 79-73 win in the OVC Championship Game Saturday night, it left Coach Rick Byrd and his seniors with a strange feeling.

"It stinks,'' Byrd said after his team finished the season 24-9, the same record Eastern Kentucky will carry into the NCAA Tournament with an automatic bid.

"I totally appreciate what they're going through. None of those kids have ever been and it's a great feeling,'' Byrd added. "But when you get a taste of it and been fortunate enough to get as many trips as we have, there's nothing like it.''

Byrd was worried when Eastern beat Murray in Friday night's game. Belmont had lost at Eastern by 74-65 and Belmont beat the Colonels by only three points in regular season games.

"I was really concerned about this game,'' Byrd said. "I watched our last game with them. We beat them by three, but we were up 20 at halftime and they really handled us in the second half and I knew it was going to be tough.

"We just didn't have a good shooting day and they did. I don't think we played poorly, we just didn't shoot the ball like this team needs to, to win big games and they did.''

The Colonels came out with their hair on fire, stunning the Bruins with a 17-2 lead.

"Being up 17-2 was where we needed to be,'' said Eastern Kentucky coach Jeff Neubauer. "Belmont was chasing us. If Belmont had been up 17-2 we'd be chasing them and that's not where we needed to be.''

Neubauer started three seniors and two juniors. That experience made a difference against a Belmont team that lost a lot of points, rebounds and experience from last season's team.

"Our experience really mattered,'' Neubauer said. "Having six seniors meant so much. And it was our experience last year, having played Murray (State) in the semifinals that showed us what this tournament was all about.''

Belmont trailed at half, 36-28, but the Bruins kept battling and eventually caught the Colonels. It was 52-all with 6:30 left in the game, the all-important NCAA Tournament automatic bid on the line.

But a couple of costly turnovers and missed shots allowed Eastern Kentucky to take a 62-54 lead. It was a lead they would not relinquish.

"I think they have more guys on the floor doing what their coach wants them to do than anybody we played, conference or otherwise,'' Byrd said.

"I liked our chances when we caught up. Give them credit for making some big plays,'' Byrd added. "They made four or five really late, tough, contested 3-pointers at the shot clock buzzer, one of which I'm still not sure was not after the shot clock buzzer. I think they are good enough to make a tough night for somebody in the NCAA Tournament.''

Belmont will be available for the NIT, as the OVC will not get a second team in the NCAA Tournament.

Belmont senior J.J. Mann, the OVC's Most Valuable Player, has been to the Big Dance three straight years.

"It's tough,'' Mann said. "It's all I've known. The NIT is not the worst thing in the world.''

But for Belmont players and coaches, it is still a hollow feeling.

Contact wkrn.com. Sports Columnist Joe Biddle at joebiddle11@gmail.com.

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