NORMAL, Ill. - - Belmont University men's basketball dropped a 79-72 decision at Illinois State Wednesday night in its 2019-20 season opener.
For the first time since November 1986, Belmont had a new head coach; as Casey Alexander made his debut on the sidelines following the footsteps of his mentor, hall of fame coach Rick Byrd.
Belmont defeated Illinois State in the 2018-19 season opener, riding a 62-point first half offensive outburst.
In the return meeting, the Redbirds would flip the script, choosing their flurry of scoring for the second 20 minutes. Illinois State shot 13-for-26 from 3-point distance, including 9-for-13 in the second half.
Early on, sophomore Grayson Murphy (Franklin, Tenn.) capped a 10-2 run with a putback basket to give the Bruins a 10-7 lead four and a half minutes in.
But a second 3-pointer in the first five minutes from Ricky Torres, a capable 3-pointer shooter from his junior college days but one that went 4-for-45 from long distance last season at Wichita State, tied the score and portended things to come.
Belmont held Illinois State to five points the final 10:45 of the first half, and seized a 26-18 lead on another Murphy score.
Following another Kunkel 3-pointer, graduate student Tyler Scanlon (Centreville, Va.) drew an offensive foul on Keith Fisher III. Fisher III would also be whistled for a technical foul during the sequence, pushing the Belmont lead to 31-20 with 3:54 in the half.
Belmont led 31-23 at halftime.
The Bruins limited Illinois State to 9-for-29 shooting in the opening 20 minutes.
Hopkins and Kunkel led Belmont with nine first-half points each.
Sophomore Nick Muszynski (Pickerington, Ohio) scored inside to make the score 33-25 with 19:18 remaining - and produced a blocked shot on the Bruins' next defensive possession - before a banked wing 3-pointer from Jaycee Hillsman ushered a litany of perimeter shots from the Redbirds in the final 18 minutes.
Muszynski continued to deliver inside, and when Hopkins found Scanlon along the baseline, Belmont led 44-40 with 15:23 remaining.
Murphy and Hopkins matched the Illinois State scoring, allowing Belmont to maintain a 59-51 advantage with 10:56 left.
Freshman DJ Horne followed the scoring lead of Hillsman and Copeland, and his ultra-assertive stint of contested perimeter shots hurt the Bruin cause.
A 3-pointer from Copeland gave Illinois State a 64-62 lead with 6:14 left; the hosts first lead since midway through the first half.
Despite inspired play from Muszynski, Murphy and Kunkel, Belmont simply couldn't get over the hump.
Following a loose ball scrum in the lane, Taylor Bruninga made a baseline 3-pointer with 2:10 left to give Illinois State a 71-66 lead.
Four points from Scanlon made it a one possession game in the final minute, but following a Copeland miss, Murphy was called for a personal foul battling for the rebound with Hillsman.
His two free throws with 16 seconds remaining pushed the margin back to five points.
An Abdou Ndiaye dunk at the buzzer provided the final margin.
All told, Belmont shot 47 percent (28-for-60) from the field, outscored Illinois State 40-24 in the paint and committed only 10 turnovers.
Muszynski led four Bruins in double figures with 20 points, five rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots. Murphy added 17 points, nine rebounds and three steals. Kunkel scored a career-high 13 points.
Junior Nick Hopkins (Fayetteville, Tenn.) added 12.
Copeland led Illinois State (1-0) with 20 points.
Belmont (0-1) returns to game action Monday, Nov. 11 vs. Samford. Tip-off is set for 6:30 p.m. CT from the Curb Event Center.