NASHVILLE, Tenn. - - Behind spirited defense and its experienced backcourt, Belmont University men's basketball defeated Middle Tennessee, 64-49, Thursday night.
In what has developed into a compelling non-conference series, this year's edition featured added anticipation and intrigue. The Bruins and Blue Raiders boasted impressive early season performances - perhaps most notably Belmont's win at Stanford Nov. 18 and Middle Tennessee's triumph over Ole Miss Saturday - and talented, experienced rosters.
Early on, both teams showcased trademark defensive intensity and teamwork.
Six points from JT Sulton gave Middle Tennessee a 13-10 lead. Both teams labored to find an offensive rhythm, as every pass and catch was fiercely contested.
Two of the top three-pointers shooters in the nation - Belmont senior Ian Clark (Memphis, Tenn.) and Middle Tennessee guard Raymond Cintron - were targeted and hounded by the opposing side, limiting clean looks.
Neither team led by more than four points in the first half, in a stanza that featured five lead changes. After another Sulton basket gave Middle Tennessee a 24-22 edge with 4:34 left in the half, the Bruins closed well.
Belmont ended the half on an 8-2 run, highlighted by a buzzer-beating three-pointer from junior J.J. Mann (Smyrna, Ga.). The Bruins led 30-26 at halftime.
All told, Belmont shot 44 percent (12-for-27) from the field in the opening 20 minutes - including 2-for-9 from three-point distance. The Bruins outrebounded Middle Tennessee, 20-17, in the first half. Jenkins led Belmont with nine points and six rebounds at halftime.
Belmont carried the momentum of Mann's three-pointer into the second half, as Jenkins punctuated a 10-1 run to open the second half with a monster slam dunk, giving the Bruins a 40-27 lead with 16:29 left.
Belmont limited Middle Tennessee to one made field goal in the first six and a half minutes of the second half, stretching the margin to 46-29 with 13:36 left on a gorgeous fadeaway jumper from senior Kerron Johnson (Huntsville, Ala.).
Johnson and Clark seized control on both ends of the floor in the second half - creating scoring opportunities offensively while showcasing leadership and accountability defensively.
The Blue Raiders got as close as 11 points three times, but no closer. Hustle plays from Mann, among others, thwarted several second chances for Middle Tennessee.
All told, Belmont shot 50 percent (27-for-54) from the field - including 56 percent in the second half. Meanwhile, the Bruins held Middle Tennessee to 29 percent shooting, 7-for-31 in the second half.
The Bruins forced nine second half turnovers.
Johnson led three Bruins in double figures with 17 points, six rebounds and five assists. Clark had 15 points, four rebounds and four assists, while Jenkins added 11 points, seven rebounds and a career-high five blocked shots.
Mann had a game-high eight rebounds.
Sulton led Middle Tennessee (7-3) with nine points.
The Bruins have won 31 of their last 32 home games dating back to the 2009-10 season. Belmont has won six of the last eight meetings with Middle Tennessee.
Belmont (7-2) returns to action Saturday at No. 9 Kansas. Tip-off is set for 6 p.m. CT from historic Allen Fieldhouse.
The game will be broadcast live on ESPNU and the Watch ESPN app.
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.