Six days ago, Belmont pounded Kennesaw State 88-41 in the final regular-season game for both teams.
For most of the first half of their game Thursday afternoon in the first round of the A-Sun tournament, the memory of the blowout was still lingering in the minds of the Belmont players.
But the top-seeded Bruins shook off the malaise to regroup before halftime to take a lead they wouldn’t lose on the way to a 72-57 victory at the University Center. Belmont (28-4) moves into Friday’s 6:30 p.m. semifinal.
Looking nothing like the easy mark it was on Saturday, Kennesaw State (8-23) opened a 23-16 lead at the seven-minute mark of the first half. But after a media timeout, Belmont finished the half on a 19-5 run for a 35-28 lead at intermission it quickly built upon in the second half.
“I don’t think we came out as focused as we needed to be,” said Belmont’s Jordan Campbell, who had one of the Bruins’ four 3-point baskets in the run. “In the timeout, (head coach Rick Byrd) told us we needed to be more aggressive on offense and defense.”
Kennesaw State managed to hit just 1-of-6 shots and suffered five turnovers during the Bruins’ spurt. Markeith Cummings, who led all scorers with 20 points, had all five of the Owls’ points on a layup and three foul shots.
“It was definitely a different team from Saturday,” said Byrd, whose team bolted to a 39-16 halftime cushion in the regular-season finale. “They played with a lot of purpose, really hard. They made it tough on us.”
Belmont shot just 36 percent, was outrebounded 41-35 and suffered 16 turnovers.
“Mentally and emotionally our kids were ready,” Kennesaw State head coach Tony Ingle said. “We fought and scrapped so hard. There aren’t too many teams that will hold them to 36 percent shooting for the night, but they hit some big shots.”
Once the Bruins gained the upper hand, they were able to hold off the Owls with the help of 5-for-8 shooting from beyond the arc in the second half and some sparkling team play. Of Belmont’s 21 baskets in the game, 17 came off assists.
“We always look to make the extra pass, and that’s what usually gives us an open shot,” said Campbell, whose nine points came on a 3-for-6 effort on 3-pointers. “We started driving the lane a little more toward the end of the first half when they were playing us more on the perimeter and that’s what got us some open shots.”
Ian Clark, who connected on 4-of-6 3-pointers, topped the Bruins with 14 points. Center Mick Hedgepeth had 12 points and seven rebounds. Belmont played 11 players as is its norm, and all delivered points.
Cummings averaged just seven points in the two regular-season meetings with Belmont but delivered Wednesday. The 6-foot-6 sophomore was 6-for-15 from the floor and 8-for-11 from the line and grabbed seven rebounds.
“He was all he’s cracked up to be,” Byrd said of Cummings. “You defense him first, then everybody else.”
Spencer Dixon followed Cummings with 15 points. The point guard scored eight of his total to help the Owls open the lead before the Bruins took command.
“We didn’t execute the offense and made some mistakes we shouldn’t have made,” Ingle said of his team’s struggles late in the first half. “We missed some open shots and free throws, and on the defensive end, we let them hit a couple of threes.”
Belmont outscored Kennesaw State 14-7 to open the second half for a 49-35 advantage. The Owls were never able to get the deficit to single digits the rest of the way. The final score was the game’s largest spread.
“We have to play a lot better than we did,” said Byrd, whose team tied top-ranked Ohio State and San Diego State for the most wins in Division I this season. “But Kennesaw had a lot to do with it.”