SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Belmont University men's basketball fell to Pac-12 stalwart Arizona, 81-64, in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament Thursday night.
Great anticipation and build-up surrounded this latest foray into March Madness for Belmont. Equipped with NCAA Tournament experiences in 2011 and 2012 and sporting one of the nation's top backcourts in seniors Ian Clark (Memphis, Tenn.) and Kerron Johnson (Huntsville, Ala.), many not only hoped, but believed, this might be the Bruins' time to bust down the 'Big Dance' door on its sixth appearance in eight years.
But with a growing national reputation for consistent, hard-nosed play - and respected college basketball experts mentioning the Bruins as a potential double-figure seed to watch - Belmont's days of sneaking up on the opposition were distant memories.
As for Arizona, the Wildcats featured one of the nation's top head coaches in Sean Miller, and a deep, balanced roster that raced out to a 14-0 record - behind non-conference wins over Miami, Florida, and San Diego State among others - and a No. 3 national ranking.
The start at EnergySolutions Arena was somewhat muted, as the arena was cleared from session one (Pitt-Wichita State and Gonzaga-Southern) and doors re-opened mere minutes prior to tip.
So as fans trickled in amidst the snow flurries, Belmont endured a difficult start. The Wildcats scored on their first two possessions, while the Bruins managed only one field goal in the opening nine minutes. Despite All Pac-12 swingman Solomon Hill picking up a second foul 3:11 into the game, Belmont had a myriad of shots from all angles rim off.
A baseline three-pointer from Jordan Mayes gave Arizona a 14-4 lead with 12:07 left in the half.
The inauspicious beginning got worse when senior forward Trevor Noack (Keller, Texas) picked up his second foul moments later on a moving screen.
In desperate need of a spark, the Belmont starting backcourt provided one. A step-back three-pointer from Johnson got the Bruins going, as a defensive stop and a slam from junior Blake Jenkins (Knoxville, Tenn.) cut the deficit in half.
Five quick points from Clark made the score 16-14 Arizona with 8:33 left in the half, and Belmont clearly had settled in.
As the offense came around, the Bruin defense truly held things together. In fact, sophomore Reece Chamberlain (Goodlettsville, Tenn.) led the defensive charge drawing three charges in the opening 20 minutes.
A Chamberlain steal led to a Clark driving layin, making the score 21-18 with 5:13 left in the half. But just as Belmont appeared poised to survive the early stuggles and position themselves well for the second half, more adversity struck.
Belmont would muster two free throws the remainder of the half, as Arizona finished the half on a back-breaking 9-2 run to lead 32-20 at halftime.
Belmont shot 26 percent (7-for-27) from the field in the first half - including 2-for-13 from three-point distance. The poor shooting led to lopsided rebounding numbers, with the formidable Wildcat frontline providing a 27-9 edge on the boards.
Clark led Belmont with 11 first half points.
Grant Jarrett capped a 9-3 Arizona run to open the second half, giving the Wildcats a 41-23 lead with 17:07 left.
Belmont elected to open the game up a bit, extending pressure and allowing Johnson greater freedom to attack the Arizona defense in the open court.
But while he and junior J.J. Mann (Smyrna, Ga.) heated up, Arizona rode the hot hand of Mark Lyons to snuff out any Belmont run.
A conventional three-point play from Kevin Parrom made the score 48-30 with 14:21 left.
The Bruin frontcourt of Noack, Jenkins and senior Brandon Baker (Milford, Ohio) battled foul trouble throughout.
Nevertheless, Belmont fought on. After layins from Jenkins and Johnson, Clark buried a deep three-pointer to get the Bruins within 64-50 with 5:35 left. Mann would then steal the subsequent in-bounds pass, and sink a twisting baseline three-pointer to get the Bruins within 64-53.
The sequence provided new life, and a chance for one final push. But Arizona simply showcased its depth, with five different scorers tallying over the next 2:20 to secure the outcome.
All told, Belmont shot 39 percent (20-for-51) from the field - including 54 percent in the second half. The Bruins forced 16 turnovers, while only committing eight. But a 44-18 rebounding margin proved too much to overcome.
Johnson led three Bruins in double figures with a team-high 22 points. Clark added 21 while Mann scored 13.
Lyons led Arizona (26-7) with 23 points.
Belmont ends another historic season with a record of 26-7.