BOWLING GREEN, Ky. - - Belmont University men's basketball closed non-conference play in grand style, defeating Western Kentucky, 75-72, Tuesday night.
The Bruins got 19 points and 11 rebounds from junior Dylan Windler (Indianapolis, Ind.), who tallied his ninth double-double of the season.
"This is a big win for us, because of how good Western Kentucky is," Belmont head coach Rick Byrd said. "Just look at who they've beaten; I could not be prouder of our team."
The Bruins were seeking a fifth consecutive win in the series and another signature victory, after defeating Middle Tennessee and Vanderbilt earlier this season.
Meanwhile, the host Hilltoppers feature one of the most talented and efficient offensive teams in the nation, with wins over Purdue and SMU to date.
The Bruins received a huge lift early from junior Mack Mercer (Plymouth, Ind.), who scored 10 of Belmont's first 14 points.
A 3-pointer from senior Austin Luke (Rowlett, Texas) increased the Belmont lead to five, 17-12, midway through the first half.
Defensively, the Bruins were locked in and unified, forcing contested shots and protecting the defensive backboard.
Windler delivered three straight possessions of electrifying shot making to give Belmont a 25-16 lead with 5:33 left in the first half.
Lamonte Bearden capped a 6-0 Western Kentucky run before consecutive 3-pointers from freshman Nick Hopkins (Fayetteville, Tenn.) and junior Kevin McClain (Jennings, Fla.) helped give Belmont a 33-26 lead at halftime.
Belmont shot 44 percent (12-for-29) from the field in the opening 20 minutes – including 7-for-17 from 3-point distance. Of equal importance, the Bruins outrebounded Western Kentucky, and committed only two live ball turnovers in the opening 20 minutes. The Hilltoppers entered play among the nation's leaders, forcing nearly 17 turnovers per game.
Windler and Mercer led Belmont with 10 first half points apiece.
Two 3-pointers from senior Amanze Egekeze (Lake in the Hills, Ill.) pushed the Belmont lead to 11, 39-28, with 18:34 left.
Bearden would twice trim the margin to four, but the Bruins had a response.
A driving layin from freshman Grayson Murphy (Thompson's Station, Tenn.) capped a 10-2 Belmont run and gave the Bruins a 53-41 lead with 12:57 remaining.
Belmont endured a brief dry spell before Windler stepped up a buried a clutch 3-pointer at the 8:12 mark to stave off a Hilltopper push.
The junior would then set up consecutive baskets from Murphy and Egekeze to make the score 60-52 with with 6:46 to go.
Bearden would again cut the Bruin lead to three before Hopkins calmly sank a wing 3-pointer to again pump the margin back to six.
The intensity and emotion of the second half was truly benefitting a game in March.
Justin Johnson carried Western Kentucky's offensive torch down the stretch, but the Bruins remained poised.
After a Windler teardrop, Hopkins again found the range from behind the arc to give Belmont a 68-63 lead with 2:50 left.
After an exchange of defensive stops, Jake Ohmer scored a conventional 3-point play with 2:01 remaining to get the Hilltoppers within two.
Then after a rare Windler miss, Belmont was whistled for a foul battling for a rebound with 1:33 left.
Bearden made two free throws to tie the score at 68.
As Diddle Arena came to a thunderous crescendo, the Bruins finished the deal.
Egekeze confidently buried a wing 3-pointer with 1:04 left to put Belmont back ahead by three.
Then after an Ohmer missed shot and a strong Mercer rebound, Belmont called timeout in the backcourt to secure possession.
Following the timeout, Western Kentucky extended full court pressure, with Taveion Hollingsworth and Luke pursuing an inbounds pass that was tipped out of bounds.
Officials awarded possession to Belmont, and confirmed the call upon video review.
With a 14-second differential between game clock and shot clock and it being a one-possession game, Western Kentucky head coach Rick Stansbury elected to play a possession of defense to give his team one final opportunity.
However, as the Bruins worked down the clock, Hollingsworth was whistled for a foul with 18 seconds left; thus giving Belmont a fresh possession with the shot clock turned off.
With the Hilltoppers having only committed five team fouls in the second half, Belmont was able to wind down more precious seconds.
In fact, the Bruins ran an inbounds play that freed Hopkins for what could have been a layin, albeit somewhat contested.
However, the freshman elected to fake and dribble out more clock, before being fouled with 11 seconds left.
Hopkins sank both free throws to increase the lead to five.
Bearden would race the length of the floor and score with under six seconds left to make the score 73-70.
From there, Belmont freed Hopkins, who again sank both ends of a one-and-one free throw trip with five seconds left, all but putting the game away.
Johnson scored a tip-in at the buzzer.
All told, Belmont shot 46 percent (26-for-56) from the field – including 14-for 36 from 3-point distance. The Bruins outrebounded Western Kentucky, 35-33, and handed out 16 assists.
Windler led four Bruins in double figures with 19 points. Egekeze had 15 points, while Mercer and Hopkins each scored 13.
Bearden, Hollingsworth and Johnson each scored 16 for Western Kentucky (7-5).
Belmont (8-5) returns to game action Dec. 28 at Southeast Missouri. Tip-off is set for 7:30 p.m. CT. The game will be broadcast on OVC Digital Network. The live play-by-play of the Voice of the Bruins Kevin Ingram can be heard on the Bruin Sports Network. In-game updates will be available via Twitter @BelmontMBB.
NOTES: The Bruins have won five straight in the series, including each of the last four seasons … Windler ranks among NCAA leaders in double-doubles (9) … Egekeze has 49 career double figure scoring games … Belmont outscored Western Kentucky, 32-9, off the bench … Murphy had six points, two rebounds and two assists.