NASHVILLE, Tenn. - - Behind 25 points and 12 rebounds from senior All-America candidate Evan Bradds (Jamestown, Ohio), Belmont University men's basketball defeated Eastern Kentucky, 76-72, Thursday night.
With the victory - and other results in the OVC - Belmont secured a ninth conference regular season championship since 2006. Only Kansas and Gonzaga have more over that span.
Belmont also secured the No. 1 seed in the OVC Tournament.
In addition, Belmont head coach Rick Byrd earned career victory No. 750.
But all of that was extremely hard-earned against a talented and determined Eastern Kentucky team.
The Colonels, traditionally one of the top 3-point shooting teams in the OVC, mysteriously entered play shooting 26 percent from behind the arc in league play.
That was not evident in the opening six minutes, as Eastern Kentucky made seven of its first eight shots – including five 3-pointers – in taking a 19-11 lead.
From there, Belmont settled in, holding Eastern Kentucky without a field goal for a five-minute stretch.
The Bruins tied the game at 22 on an electrifying sequence, started on a blocked shot by junior Amanze Egekeze (Lake in the Hills, Ill.) and finished with an emphatic slam from sophomore Dylan Windler (Indianapolis, Ind.).
Moments later, Bradds took a baseline feed from junior Austin Luke (Rowlett, Texas) and dunked it home to keep the Bruin student section roaring.
A driving layin from sophomore Kevin McClain pushed Belmont's lead to 31-26 at the 4:10 mark, but Eastern Kentucky would score the next eight points and lead 38-37 at halftime.
Belmont shot 54 percent (14-for-26) from the field in the opening 20 minutes and outrebounded the Colonels by four.
Bradds led Belmont with 13 first half points.
Belmont built the lead to 50-42 with 15:26 remaining on a conventional 3-point play from Egekeze, but just as the Bruins appeared poised to build a working margin, the duo of Nick Mayo and Asante Gist kept Eastern Kentucky in the game.
Mayo made the score 50-49 with 13:32 left.
Aggressive drives from Windler produced scores and worked the Colonels into foul trouble.
Three points from Bradds gave Belmont a 62-52 lead with 7:14 to go.
But replies from Mayo and Gist cut the lead to 62-58 with 5:23 remaining.
The Bruins led 69-60 with 2:39 left on Windler free throws, but a strange sequence of events quickly turned the tide.
A second chance opportunity from Zach Charles and two Mayo free throws got the Colonels within seven.
Then following a rare backdoor misconnection between Luke and senior Taylor Barnette (Lexington, Ky.), Gist made a leaning wing 3-pointer to make the score 69-65 with 1:45 left.
Moments later, the Bruins would commit a turnover and Gist would be fouled on a 3-point attempt with 1:24 remaining.
Gist made all three free throws to get Eastern Kentucky within one.
Bradds would deliver a conventional 3-point play with 1:02 left to push the margin back to four, and Belmont made four straight free throws in the final 29 seconds to secure the victory.
All told, Belmont shot 50 percent (23-for-46) from the field and committed only four second half turnovers.
Belmont held Eastern Kentucky to 29 percent shooting in the second half.
Bradds led Belmont with 25 points and 12 rebounds. Windler added a career-high tying 23 points. Egekeze had 10.
Gist led Eastern Kentucky (10-18, 3-10 OVC) with 28 points.
Belmont (19-5, 13-1 OVC) returns to game action Saturday, Feb. 18 vs. Morehead State. Tip-off is set for 4 p.m. CT from the Curb Event Center. The game will be broadcast on OVC Digital Network. The live play-by-play of Voice of the Bruins Kevin Ingram can be heard on the Bruin Sports Network and 104.5 The Zone. In-game updates will be available via Twitter @BelmontMBB.
NOTES: Belmont has won 16 conference championships (nine regular season, seven tournament) since 2006 ... Belmont joins Akron, Duke, Gonzaga, Kansas, Louisville, North Carolina, VCU, and Wisconsin as the only NCAA Division I men's basketball programs to win 19 or more games 12 consecutive seasons (BYU, Michigan State, Ohio State, and San Diego State have the opportunity to join the group) ... With 25 points, Bradds is seven points shy of Wes Burtner ('02) for second place on Belmont's NCAA Division I era career scoring list and 94 points shy of Golden State Warrior guard Ian Clark ('13) for first ... Bradds has 1,826 career points ... Bradds recorded his 28th double-double ... Windler also scored 23 points vs. SEMO (1/7/17) ... Belmont outscored Eastern Kentucky, 40-24, in the paint ... Barnette was honored prior to the game for scoring his 1,000th career point at Jacksonville State (2/9/17) ... Clark, in Tennessee during the NBA All-Star break, received a standing ovation as he was honored during a timeout ... Belmont celebrated Community Day with Nashville neighbors.