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The Morning Dish – Friday, February 3, 2017

February 3, 2017 The Morning Dish No Comments

It wouldn’t be a college basketball season without Belmont finding a way to make ripples with its excellence, and sure enough, the Bruins are at it again.

After a relatively slow start to the season, Belmont has now won 13 straight games, including 11 consecutive in the Ohio Valley Conference to rank as one of the few teams remaining undefeated in its conference. That includes an 81-69 win Thursday night at Murray State in the latest renewal of what has become the OVC’s best current series.

The Bruins and Racers again put on an entertaining game, one that was in doubt until the final minutes. The game was a clash of the league’s East and West division leaders as well as perhaps the league’s two best players (Belmont’s Evan Bradds vs. Murray State guard Jonathan Stark), and the contrast in styles of the Bruins ’ always efficient four-out offense against the Racers’ attacking guards made for a game again worthy of its national television date on ESPNU.

Belmont raced to a hot start behind point guard Austin Luke, the man with two first names who put on a show in the first half with 15 points and four assists while dazzling in the open floor. Among the many things that have made Belmont such a consistent success over the years is how it has seamlessly replaced good players with more good players, and it was just before last season when many wondered how coach Rick Byrd was going to follow excellent point guard Reece Chamberlain, who was among the national leaders in assists as a senior. Yet he’s done exactly that with Luke-who has ranked among the nation’s assist leaders the last two years.

The Bruins also got their customary terrific production from Bradds (23 points, 10 rebounds, 10 of 16 from the field), but it was Amanze Egekeze who proved to be the X-factor with 24 points. The 6-foot-8 forward proved a tough guard on the perimeter for the Racers’ big men all night with four three-pointers, and his two straight late in the second half helped Belmont finally gain some breathing room coming down the stretch.

The Racers gave a game effort, fighting off some cold shooting nights (guards Damarcus Croaker and Bryce Jones were a combined 3-for-17) to hang around. Stark scored 26 points and showed repeatedly why he’s as explosive of a guard as there is in the OVC, and Murray State showed resolve in rallying from a 17-point first half deficit to tie it midway through the second half. Matt McMahon is still rebuilding a program that lost a ton of talent and its coach from its outstanding 2014-15 squad, but Murray is still one of the top contenders in the OVC.

That said, there is a separation in the league right now. Belmont is now three games ahead of everyone else in the Ohio Valley in the loss column and five games ahead in the win column in the league standings. It would take a major collapse for any OVC team to overtake Rick Byrd’s team for the top spot in the conference tourney, and with only one team even as good as 6-3 in league play (Morehead State), there is no foreseeable threat to help induce the Bruins into falling apart.

The only thing Belmont is missing is NCAA Tournament success, something it is long overdue for. If or when it happens, perhaps this program will receive its due for the incredible success it has had at the NCAA Division I level. Belmont sports information touts a terrific stat noting that, since 2003, it has won more D-I conference games than any other team-including 11-time defending Big 12 champion Kansas. The Bruins also lead the nation in academic All-Americans since 2001. It’s a model program in almost every way, and one whose consistency shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone by now.

Side Dishes:

  • Gonzaga was expected to receive a challenge to its undefeated mark at BYU, and it did. Nigel Williams-Goss showed, though, why he’s been one of the most important players to his team in the country, scoring a career-best 33 points as the Bulldogs staved off a second half rally to win 85-75 in Provo.
  • For those who still refuse to appreciate what Gonzaga is doing this year, they should take not of just how many ranked teams out west struggled last night in games that by all accounts should’ve been blowouts. Arizona trailed at halftime before pulling away in the second half to win 71-54 over an Oregon State team having a terrible year. Oregon squeaked by feisty but highly undermanned Arizona State 71-70 at home, and Saint Mary’s could never shake Pacific all night, holding off the Tigers 74-70.
  • The game of the night came in the Pac-12, where California outlasted Utah 77-75 in double overtime as Jabari Bird slammed in an alley oop in the final seconds of overtime. The Golden Bears keep building a quiet case for an NCAA bid, while the Utes continue to feel the hurt of playing a terrible non-conference schedule, one that there are few excuses for a program with every bit of financial might to have scheduled better.
  • Florida blew away hapless Missouri 93-54, but notable was Chris Chiozza coming off the bench to post a triple-double with 12 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists. Chiozza is one of the most anonymous players on a Gators team that as a whole is still mostly unknown, but every time we’ve watched Florida this year he’s stuck out, and he’s been excellent off the bench all year.
  • Michigan State won at Nebraska 72-61 for its second win this week. As Myles Bridges gets healthy, his considerable talents continue to show, and he had 16 points on 7 of 10 shooting in this one. State also got 31 points from its bench in this one.
  • Middle Tennessee State just keeps on rolling. The Blue Raiders are now 20-3 after a 69-59 win at Texas-San Antonio. Giddy Potts scored 22 points.
  • The CAA race is officially on. College of Charleston went on the road and won at UNC Wilmington 67-66, evening the teams’ season series and pinning the Seahawks with their second straight loss. Jarrell Brantley converted a three-point play with eight seconds left, and UNCW missed a free throw to tie it in the final seconds. In a fascinating contrast of styles, the Cougars forced 16 Seahawks turnovers, and UNCW will rue making just 12 of 23 free throws in this one.
  • The road to the Southern Conference title still runs through Tennessee-Chatttanooga, and the Mocs made that crystal clear Thursday with a 91-68 destruction of UNC Greensboro team. Chattanooga still sits a game behind the leaders in the SoCon, though, as co-leaders Furman (70-68 at Mercer) and East Tennessee State (81-71 at VMI) won Thursday night.
  • Mount St. Mary’s posted a 2-11 non-conference record while playing a ridiculous early schedule, but the Mountaineers now are 10-1 in the Northeast Conference and leading the way. The Mount got a national TV showcase on ESPNU Thursday and topped Bryant 77-70 to avenge its only NEC loss so far, as Elijah Long-brother of Iowa State’s Naz Mitrou-Long-scored 20 points.

Tonight’s Menu:

  • Friday night starts in the MAC with athletic Western Michigan at three-point bombing Central Michigan (6:30 p.m. Eastern, CBSSN).
  • An important game in the Ivy League as Yale is at Columbia, a collision of two of the league’s three teams at 3-1 and just behind leading Princeton.
  • St. Peter’s is one of two teams to beat Monmouth in the MAAC, and now the slower-paced Peacocks-tied for second in the league-look to reel the first-place Hawks back into the pack.
  • Curiously, ESPN chose Iona at Rider as its featured MAAC game for the night (7 p.m., ESPNU). The Gaels have started their traditional late-season push, while the Broncs have slipped to the middle of the pack after a strong start in league.
  • Rhode Island tries to continue making an NCAA Tournament push but has a tricky road game at Davidson (7 p.m., ESPN2). The Wildcats are sitting in the middle of the Atlantic 10 but have won three straight.
  • The night on TV concludes back in the MAC as Buffalo goes to West Division-leading Ball State (9 p.m., ESPNU), which quietly is having a nice season.

Have an excellent Friday and a superb weekend.

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