KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Despite trailing the 10th-ranked team in the nation by 18 points in the first half Sunday, the scrappy and determined Belmont women's basketball team found itself not only in contention late in the game but holding a fourth-quarter lead.
The Bruins rallied all the way back to put a scare in the mighty [10/10] Tennessee Lady Vols, but UT's athleticism and depth helped the home team inevitably avoid the upset. In the first meeting between the programs in 40 years, Belmont fell 84-76 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Belmont closes its non-conference slate at 7-4 with three of those losses coming to Power Five conference foes. Two have come to teams currently ranked in the top 10 nationally ([9/9] North Carolina State).
"It's encouraging – it is. We're going to take this game and we're going to learn from it," said Belmont senior guard Darby Maggard (Larwill, Ind.).
"Playing games like this is only going to help us in our conference and down the road, hopefully in a big-time game in March."
After building an early advantage behind lights-out 3-point shooting, the Lady Vols (11-1) led 57-42 with just over six minutes remaining in the third quarter. Rather than coasting to an easy victory, Tennessee found itself on the ropes against the suddenly rabid Bruins.
Belmont closed the quarter on a 16-2 run and pulled within 59-58 on a 12-foot jumper from Maggard just seconds before the period buzzer. The Bruins held Tennessee to 15.8 percent shooting in the third quarter after the Lady Vols shot at a 52.8 clip in the opening half. After making nine 3-pointers before halftime, Tennessee made none the rest of the way.
The Lady Vols opened the fourth quarter with four quick points, but Belmont responded with a trio of layups from Ellie Harmeyer (Kenosha, Wis.), Maddie Wright (Chattanooga, Tenn.) and Maggard to give the Bruins the 64-63 lead. It was Belmont's first advantage since the opening three minutes of the game.
Freshman Macie Culbertson (Fall Branch, Tenn.) dropped in another layup to make it 66-65 with 5:27 left in the game and answer a bucket on the other end, part of a dominant paint performance by the undersized Bruins. Belmont outscored the SEC and national power 50-34 in the key.
"We expected to be able to get a lot of those baskets inside, especially off the back cuts," Belmont Head Coach Bart Brooks said. "Credit to my players. Those guys know how to play and I'm just so proud of them for how they kept their composure and executed against a really, really athletic Lady Vols team."
A final free-throw-propelled push clinched the game for Tennessee however in the first meeting since March 1, 1979 between two of the state's most historic women's basketball programs.
No player scored more Sunday than the 20 points of Belmont's Harmeyer. She added 10 rebounds for her second consecutive double-double, and the Bruins were out-rebounded just 41-39 overall despite five Tennessee players standing 6 feet, 3 inches or better.
No Belmont player exceeds 6-1.
"Going into this game we knew that rebounding was going to be a huge component of us having success," Harmeyer said. "The positioning is what we were really focusing on instead of just out-jumping them, because that was something I just wasn't going to be able to do."
Maggard scored 14 points with six assists and junior Maura Muensterman (Evansville, Ind.) added 12 points. Wright scored 10 and senior Jenny Roy chipped in eight points with nine rebounds and six assists.
The loss is Belmont's first this season when out-shooting an opponent; the Bruins held a slight 45.2 to 44.1 percent edge. Belmont had been 7-0 in such games this year.
Up Next: Belmont opens Ohio Valley Conference play Thursday when the Bruins host Jacksonville State at the Curb Event Center.