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Big Time Effort Between the Hedges

Photo Courtesy: Belmont Vision/Grant Robinson
Photo Courtesy: Belmont Vision/Grant Robinson

ATHENS, Ga. - - Belmont University men's basketball dropped a 93-84 decision at Georgia Wednesday night in the first round of the 2016 Postseason NIT.

Whether Georgia faithful realize it or not, parts of the Belmont Basketball program were left behind on the Stegeman Coliseum floor.

Playing for seniors Craig Bradshaw (Ridgetop, Tenn.) and Jeff Laidig (Mishawaka, Ind.) in the final postseason appearance of their decorated careers, the Bruins exhibited poise, passion, and togetherness from the opening tip.

A deep three-pointer from Bradshaw and an agile post move from junior Evan Bradds (Jamestown, Ohio) gave Belmont an early 5-2 lead.

But three straight Georgia three-pointers - which initiated a larger theme for the game - pushed the Bulldogs to an 11-7 lead four minutes in.

Freshman Dylan Windler (Indianapolis, Ind.) made his first career start, but two early fouls kept him from working into the game.

A three-pointer from junior Nick Smith (Bentonville, Ark.) and a basket from freshman Kevin McClain (Jennings, Fla.) got the Bruins within 13-12.

But that is when Yante Maten seemingly morphed into Kevin Durant.

The Georgia standout forward scored on strong drives and hook shots. But what left the Belmont bench in stitches was that Maten - who entered with five made three-point field goals on the season - buried three from behind the arc in the first half.

When it was over, Maten had scored 20 points in the opening 14 minutes to give Georgia a 34-22 lead.

Behind strong bench contributions from sophomore Austin Luke (Rowlett, Texas) and Smith, Belmont answered back.

A Luke trey closed the margin to 37-32, prompting a Georgia timeout.

The positive push continued as a backdoor layin from junior Taylor Barnette (Lexington, Ky.) inched Belmont within 41-38 at the 1:01 mark.

But two Kenny Gaines free throws, an acrobatic blocked shot from Derek Ogbeide to wipe away a McClain layin, and an E'Torrion Wilridge basket helped Georgia claim a 45-38 lead at halftime.

Belmont shot 45 percent (13-for-29) from the field in the opening 20 minutes - including 5-for-17 from three-point distance.

The Bruins committed only four first half turnovers and outscored Georgia, 16-12, in the paint.

Bradshaw and Luke each scored 10 first half points to lead Belmont.

Bradds picked up his third personal foul with 18:55 remaining in regulation, hindering Bruin momentum.

After late shot clock three-pointers from Charles Mann and Turtle Jackson, and a basket from Kenny Gaines pushed the Bulldog advantage to 13, 62-49, with 12:22 left, resilient Belmont stormed back once more.

Three-pointers from McClain and Smith wrapped around a Bradshaw driving basket got the Bruins within 64-59 with 8:59 remaining.

Both teams put everything on the line, with spirited play leading to rising intensity and drama.

A conventional three-point play from Bradshaw made the score 67-64 with 6:29 to go, before J.J. Frazier, who Belmont had limited to one made field goal to that point, sank a baseline three-pointer to stretch the margin back to six.

The riveting action continued, as a wing three-pointer from Barnette and two free throws from Bradshaw got Belmont within 71-69 with 5:37 to go.

Following a defensive stop, and with a chance to tie or take the lead, Belmont had a pass tipped away, triggering Maten for a crowd-pleasing transition slam.

He added a conventional three-point play to make the score 76-69 with 4:32 left.

Three-pointers from Smith and Barnette got the Bruins back within 78-75 at the 3:38 mark, before the Bruins drew a charging foul on Kenny Paul Geno leading into the under four media timeout.

With another chance to tie, Belmont turned to Smith, but his clean three-pointer with 3:09 left dipped out.

Maten responded with a short jumper to push the Georgia lead to 80-75.

After sophomore Amanze Egekeze (Lake in the Hills, Ill.) made one free throw, Belmont locked in for one final stand.

The Bruins forced the Bulldog offense out towards midcourt before Frazier bailed out the stagnant possession, confidently making a back-breaking, contested 28-footer to bump the margin back to seven, 83-76, with 1:47 left.

Coach Byrd and the Bruins played the foul game and managed the clock as best they could, but Georgia went 10-for-10 from the free throw line in the final 61 seconds.

Belmont played one of its finest games of the season, making 14 three-pointers and shooting nearly 50 percent from the field against a Bulldog squad ranked fifth nationally in field goal percentage defense.

The Bruins limited Georgia to 24 points in the paint, but the Bulldogs - who averaged six three-point field goals per game on the season - went 11-for-21 from long distance.

Bradshaw led five Bruins in double figures with 19 points. Luke had 16 points and five assists, while Smith added 14.

Bradds battled through foul trouble to score 13, while Barnette had 11 points and seven rebounds.

Maten led Georgia (20-13) with 33 points.

Belmont finishes the season 20-12.

NOTES: Seniors Craig Bradshaw and Jeff Laidig finish their Belmont careers with 94 victories, three conference regular season championships, two conference tournament championships, two NCAA Tournament appearances, two Postseason NIT appearances, and tournament victories in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic and Legends Classic ... Bradshaw finishes his career as a three-time All-OVC performer, two-time Academic All-American, and fourth on the Bruins' NCAA era career scoring list with 1,698 points ... Laidig will represent Belmont at the 2016 Final Four as part of the Allstate Good Works Team.