MACON, Ga. - - Behind 12 three-point field goals and a team-high 14 points from sophomore Ian Clark (Memphis, Tenn.), Belmont men's basketball defeated Kennesaw State, 72-57, Wednesday afternoon in the Atlantic Sun Tournament Quarterfinals.
For the first time in five years, Belmont faced the same opponent in consecutive games, having defeated the Owls to close the regular season.
But unlike the Feb. 26 contest in Kennesaw, the Bruins struggled to get into a flow. After an offensive rebound basket from junior Mick Hedgepeth (Crossville, Ala.) gave Belmont a 9-8 lead, two baskets from Markeith Cummings and a three-pointer from LaDaris Green put Kennesaw State up 15-10 seven and a half minutes in.
Green's shot prompted a quick timeout from Belmont head coach Rick Byrd.
Though the Bruins settled into better, assignment-driven defense following the timeout, Kennesaw State's myriad of defensive looks took any Bruin offensive rhythm away.
A Spencer Dixon three-pointer and a transition basket from Aaron Anderson pushed the Owls to a 23-16 lead with 7:18 left in the first half.
With the Owls playing early much like their November victory over Georgia Tech, it would have be easy for the Bruins to start questioning what exactly was transpiring; especially considering the 74 point margin of victory in the team's two regular season victories over Kennesaw State.
But the Bruins simply hung tough, rode out the solid Kennesaw State run, and made a run of their own to close the half.
Belmont held Kennesaw State to one made field goal the final 7:18 of the half, and in kind, shots started to fall. An offensive rebound basket from freshman Blake Jenkins (Knoxville, Tenn.) and a three-pointer from senior Jordan Campbell (Indianapolis, Ind.) got Belmont within 26-25 with 3:52 left in the half.
After one free throw from freshman J.J. Mann (Smyrna, Ga.), Clark drained a deep three-pointer to put the Bruins ahead, 29-26, with 2:12 left in the half. The Bruins would not trail again.
Following two Cummings free throws, junior Drew Hanlen (St. Louis, Mo.) made a wing three-pointer and sophomore Brandon Baker (Milford, Ohio) added a timely offensive rebound basket to cap a 19-5 Belmont run, sending the Bruins to the locker room with a 35-28 halftime lead.
Belmont shot 34 percent (12-for-35) from the field in the opening 20 minutes - including 7-for-18 from three-point distance. 10 Bruins scored in the first half.
Hedgepeth made three of four free throw attempts to open the second half, as Belmont extended the lead to 38-28 with 19:11 left.
Sophomore Trevor Noack (Keller, Texas) would add a clutch three-pointer of his own to increase the lead to 41-30 with 18:23 to go.
Then after an Anderson interior basket, Hedgepeth maintained great body control in finishing at the rim off a nice feed from senior Jon House (Guelph, Ont., Canada) to bump the margin back to 11, 43-32, with 17:28 left.
The Bruins appeared poised to break the game open, but promising looks inside strangely rimmed out and foul trouble for Hedgepeth and Campbell hurt momentum.
To their credit, the Owls hung around behind the play of Cummings and opportunistic defense.
A layin from Kelvin McConnell made the score 60-50 with 4:40 left. But Clark and Mann quickly answered with consecutive three-pointers to stave off the Owls' final push.
All told, Belmont shot 37 percent (21-for-57) from the field - including 12-for-26 from three-point distance. The Bruins claimed 15 offensive rebounds and forced 17 Kennesaw State turnovers.
Aside from Clark's 14 points, Hedgepeth added 12 points and seven rebounds. All 11 Bruins who played scored in the game.
Cummings led Kennesaw State (8-23) with 20 points.
Belmont (28-4) advances to the Atlantic Sun Tournament Semifinals, where it will face either Lipscomb or Mercer on Friday, Mar. 4 at 5:30pm CT.
The game will be broadcast live on CSS - which is digital cable channel 27 for most middle Tennessee area Comcast subscribers - and online at ASun.TV.
The live play-by-play of Voice of the Bruins Kevin Ingram can be heard on the Bruin Sports Network.