It's generally a good indicator of how your team will perform on the night when your senior post player, who averages seven points per game and has only surpassed 12 points 12 times in his career, has 13 points after only six and a half minutes of basketball. Blake Jenkins did exactly that, on a parade of layups, finishing the first half with 18 points to lead all scorers.
Then why in the hell was this game tied, 45-45, at the half?
Well, what happens when a team who is known for killing it from long range gets their guy in the paint some easy baskets early? The defense starts paying attention to the interior just enough to lose track of the perimeter on occasion. As we all know, Belmont is a good enough deep shooting team that if you give them open looks, they will hit them, and if they hit them, they'll get hot.
However, the Racers are no joke from long range either (.373 team 3PT%). Dexter Fields drilled four threes in the first half, T.J. Sapp hit a couple, and before you knew it Belmont's defense went the opposite way, overextended to try and contest threes. Suddenly, you blinked and Belmont couldn't stop tossing the ball away; Murray State was getting easy looks in transition, and Cameron Payne was cutting through the paint at will on his way to 17 first half points of his own.
The second half began as a back and forth affair, with each team getting good clean looks and hitting them. But then, the foul trouble started for the Racers. Jarvis Williams finally began to get and make some looks down low, but he couldn't do it all by himself.
Jeffrey Moss picked up his fourth foul with 18:32 left. Then Sapp notched his fourth foul with 14:32 left. Payne earned his third foul with 13:51 left. Suddenly the defense was a bit less aggressive, and Craig Bradshaw and Reece Chamberlain started cutting through the defense at will.
Then the threes started coming. Bradshaw hit a three... then J.J. Mann hit a three... then Bradshaw passed up a three to let Jenkins dunk it... then Bradshaw hit another three. By the time Murray State took a timeout with 11:27 left, Belmont had put together a 13-4 run and a 71-63 lead.
It became a challenge for Murray State to stay in the game, because both of these teams are not terribly deep and when you have an aggressive but shallow rotation, foul trouble is your death knell. They were able to get back on track and keep scoring, but were never really able to cut into that lead until the waning seconds of the game.
It seemed certain that J.J. Mann's 17th and 18th points would seal the deal, giving Belmont an 11 point lead at 91-80 with only 1:05 left to play. But do you remember before when I said that Belmont was a great long-range shooting team, but Murray State was no joke either? Guess what happened next.
Sapp hit a three, and then Mann made a couple more free throws. Then Sapp hit another three and Bradshaw lost the ball out of bounds trying to beat the press. Bradshaw fell down chasing Payne on the inbounds and Cameron Payne drilled another three. Suddenly it's only 93-89 Belmont.
Unfortunately, the Racers couldn't keep the ball our of Mann's hands, and he took the Bruins the rest of the way to the free throw line, with 11 of his 25 points coming in the stretch run of the second half. Sapp stole the final in-bounds and back-rimmed one last three that would have sent the game to extra time, but it wasn't meant to be.
The Bruins wound up with a total of 72 points from Jenkins, Mann and Bradshaw. Bradshaw's 22 points, after catching fire and destroying the Racer defense on dribble drive penetration in the second half, was extra impressive. Not because he was listening to "old school Justin Timberlake" (N'Sync?) during warm-ups, but because he got abused around the ten minute mark of the first half.
He got run over by Fields on one possession and somehow was called for an offensive foul. On the very next possession he lost control on a fast break dunk and looked sure to have blown out his knee, but popped back up a minute later.
Credit to Murray State for hanging in this game despite needing to change their plan of attack - they were able to hang in even though they couldn't keep their best lineup out of foul trouble; they drained threes until the post game kicked in, and then drained a few more once they needed to catch up - 12 in all. Belmont got a strong post performance when they needed it from Jenkins, as his 25 points were enough to cancel out the double-double (21 points and 13 rebounds) posted by Jarvis WIlliams.
The Bruins will continue a four-game home stand with much easier foes (Austin Peay, TSU and EIU), while the Racers will likely take out all their aggression on Tennessee State this Saturday.
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