DAYTON — Rick Byrd knew the ramifications of what had just transpired as he took the podium following his team’s 81-70 win over Temple in the First Four of the NCAA Tournament. It was a milestone night for not just him, but for the Belmont basketball program as the Bruins earned their first NCAA Tournament win in school history on Tuesday night.
“Anyway, this is a historic night for Belmont University and our basketball program. Just 48 hours ago we didn’t know if we were going to be in this, and I didn’t know if these two seniors [Dylan Windler and Kevin McClain] were ever going to get to play in the NCAA Tournament. And now they’ve got Belmont’s first win. So it’s a big night for us, and we’re happy we’re up here talking to you.”
It’s true that at this time three days ago, Belmont wasn’t even sure if it would be in this position. The Bruins were over a week removed from a loss to Murray State in the OVC Championship game, relegating them to life on the bubble with their fate in the hands of the Selection Committee.
It was a long week for the Bruins, as is the case when you’re unsure of your postseason fate. But Belmont was in a different situation than a lot of other teams on the bubble.
“It was tough. Obviously it was a lot of waiting around. We’re one of the first conference tournaments out there. So it’s a full week of just waiting around. It was our spring break. So we got a few days off, which was nice,” senior forward Dylan Windler said during Belmont’s media availability on Monday before the game.
Their resume was set in stone, and with other bubble teams still playing, it took patience and a positive outlook to stay grounded.
“But it was hard just because you’re out of control at that point. You can’t really control your own destiny, which kind of stinks. But it’s watching a lot of basketball, like you said, rooting for certain teams that you wouldn’t normally have to. So we had a lot of that to do and just try to stay patient and stay optimistic and that’s what we did,” Windler said.
When Belmont’s name flashed across the screen the Bruins found out they’d be headed to Dayton, the reality set in that there was work to be done. Belmont was presented with an opportunity to silence any critics that said they weren’t deserving of an at-large bid. Rick Byrd relished the opportunity to go out and prove that the Bruins are legit.
“There’s been a lot of people that have been promoting our cause, and I don’t know if it’s about carrying the mid-major flag as much as it is the Belmont flag. And just playing like those guys said we could play,” the legendary head coach said on Monday.
“They said we were a good team and that we deserve to be here and that we could win games in this tournament. And so I feel a responsibility to those folks for standing up for us and hope that we play like we have many, many times.”
And Belmont went out and did just that.
It wasn’t their best performance in terms of efficiency or gaudy statistics, but the potent Belmont offense was out in full force on Tuesday. The Bruins found ways to score inside and out, in transition and in the halfcourt, and through designed sets or fluid offensive motion. Nick Muszynski had his way on the left block. McClain was the best player on the floor en route to a game-high 29 points. Every player that stepped on the floor for Belmont found their way into the scoring column.
At different points during the game, Temple made their runs to pull ahead. Every time, the Bruins showed that the moment wasn’t too big to rattle them as they battled back with runs of their own. Temple had a 14-2 run in the first half and a 12-2 run early in the second half, but neither was enough to hold on to the lead for more than a few minutes as Belmont continued to run their stuff and get whatever look they wanted on offense.
Beyond the obvious impact of what a win in the NCAA Tournament does for a program, it gives Belmont a feeling of vindication that it was deserving of an at-large bid despite what critics might have said. For Windler, there was a little bit of extra motivation to prove that the Bruins belonged with the best of the best.
“I would just say motivation, just proving ourselves and proving to not only the committee but everyone that supported us over the week to help us get in the tournament, all the supporters and everything, just motivation to prove to them that we’re a really good team. We deserve to be in this tournament,” the senior forward said post game.
Belmont found itself in a position that few mid-major programs get the chance to be in. At-large bids to the NCAA Tournament have become increasingly rare for mid-majors, and it’s been a common practice for the Selection Committee to send one to Dayton for the First Four. For Windler and Belmont, there’s hope that teams like them can continue to make the Selection Committee think long and hard about excluding a team of this caliber.
“Winning games like this carries on for years to come, and representing a mid-major team could affect the [Selection] Committee’s decision in the future seeing these mid-major teams make a runs in the tournament,” Windler proclaimed in the locker room. “People like to see that, and the Committee might take that into consideration in years to come. If mid-majors are on the bubble, they might favor them more than they used to, so it feels good to represent the mid-major country.”
With the opportunity that was put in front of them, Musyznski had one thing on the mind: prove them right.
“We wanted to prove them right. A lot of people would probably say they took a chance on us being a mid-major that doesn’t have a ton of great wins or a ton of bad losses. We beat the teams we were supposed to beat and lost games people expected us to,” he said postgame.
“I think it was even big for all mid-majors, showing that there are a lot of good teams in this country even though they might not all be in the biggest conferences. There’s a lot of talent, and we were able to back them up and prove that this team is legit.”
With another 48 hour turnaround awaiting the Bruins before taking on No. 6 seed Maryland, there won’t be time for Belmont to get complacent with the win. But until they get back to work on Wednesday in Jacksonville, the Bruins can enjoy the monumental step in the program’s history knowing that they went out and showed that they truly belonged in the Big Dance.