JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - - Behind career games from sophomore Kerron Johnson (Huntsville, Ala.) and junior Scott Saunders (New Orleans, La.), Belmont men's basketball defeated Jacksonville, 76-70, Thursday night.
For the seventh time this season, the Bruins never trailed in victory. But unlike the previous six, this would be a hotly-contested game throughout.
Strong Bruin defense early and balanced scoring increased the lead. Consecutive baskets from sophomore Brandon Baker (Milford, Ohio), junior Drew Hanlen (St. Louis, Mo.) and Saunders gave Belmont a 19-8 lead with 10:38 left in the half.
Following an Ayron Hardy basket, sophomore Ian Clark (Memphis, Tenn.) sank a baseline three-pointer to stretch the margin to 22-10.
Jacksonville used consecutive three-pointers from Tevin Galvin and Keith McDougald and its pressure defense to inch closer. After Travis Cohn got the Dolphins within 29-25, Johnson answered with several big plays - two free throws, a steal on the inbounds pass, and an assist to Clark for another three-pointer - to push the Bruins back to a 34-25 lead.
Then after a Galvin basket, Johnson drove and set up Saunders for an easy two and a 36-27 halftime lead.
Belmont shot 46 percent (15-for-33) in the opening 20 minutes - including 3-for-6 from three-point distance. The Bruins outrbounded the Dolphins by nine, 23-14, and held the hosts to 37 percent shooting in the first half.
Hedgepeth again led the Bruin offensive attack to open the second half, providing four points to give Belmont a 42-31 edge with 18:07 left.
But a McDougald three-pointer capped a quick 10-2 Jacksonville spurt to close the margin to 44-41 with 16:11 remaining.
After the Dolphins got within 50-48 on two Delwan Graham free throws, Johnson again sparked a Belmont reply. Johnson assisted senior Jon House (Guelph, Ont., Canada) for a layin and then followed with a strong conventional three-point play at the rim to punctuate a 9-0 Bruin run to make the score 59-48 with 8:15 left.
The teams proceeded to trade scores for several minutes before one Russell Powell free throw and a layin from McDougald got Jacksonville within 70-67 with 1:08 left.
After using clock, Belmont got the ball to Johnson, who would be fouled by Chris Davis while driving the lane. Johnson proceeded to make both ends of a one-and-one free throw opportunity to give the Bruins a 72-67 lead with 37 seconds left.
Galvin would then miss a baseline three-pointer and the Bruins claimed the defensive rebound.
Johnson and Clark combined on 4-for-4 free throw shooting in the final 14 seconds to secure the victory.
All told, Belmont shot 50 percent (29-for-58) for the game - including 56 percent in the second half. The Bruins forced 17 Dolphin turnovers.
Johnson led four Bruins in double figures with a career-high tying with 15 points. He added five assists and four steals. Hedgepeth scored 14 points and Clark added 12. Saunders supplied his third career double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds.
McDougald led Jacksonville (14-7, 8-4 Atlantic Sun) with 15 points.
Belmont (21-4, 13-1 Atlantic Sun) returns to action Saturday at North Florida. Tip-off is set for 6pm CT.
The live play-by-play of Voice of the Bruins Kevin Ingram can be heard on the Bruin Sports Network. Live video streaming will be provided via ASun.TV.