By Bob Flynn
Register Sports Writer
The Belmont Bruins (17-4, 8-0 OVC) used red-hot shooting to race past the Colonels (16-5, 6-2 OVC) 85-74 Saturday in a showdown for first place in the OVC East Division.
The Bruins hit their first six shots of the game on their way to 70 percent first-half shooting. They picked up where they left off after the half, hitting seven of their first 10 shots, and finished the game shooting 67 percent from the field and 73 percent from behind the three-point arc.
The Colonels in-your-face, man-to-man defense had been stellar in most of their games this season, but it couldn’t keep up with the crisp ball movement of an offense that consistently created open shots for shooters.
EKU coach Jeff Neubauer credited the Bruins’ execution for much of the high percentage shooting.
“One thing that has been consistent for us this season has been our man-to-man defense. In 18 of the 20 games we’ve played we really gave the other team fits, Neubauer said. “I want to give Belmont credit, they are a super basketball team. One thing they did better against us was they were able to ship the ball from one side to another and then drive it and close out, so that was a big problem. We haven’t allowed people to do that because we have had great ball pressure all year.”
Belmont used a 14-0 run to break a 19-19 tie and raced out to a 42-31 halftime lead.
The Colonels battled back and cut the lead to 10 (50-40) five minutes into the second half.
But the Bruins extended their lead out to 59-44 and were up by 63-49 with just less than 12 minutes to go when the Colonels once again began to creep back into the game.
Two free throws each by Mike DiNunno and Deverin Muff started a 9-2 Colonel run. A Marcus Lewis three pointer from the top of the circle with 9:15 to go got EKU to within eight at 65-58.
The Bruins stretched their lead back to 12 before Corey Walden ignited an EKU rally, scoring seven straight points, the last two on a driving one-handed dunk over two Bruins. A DiNunno free throw on the next possession pulled the Colonels to within four at 75-71 with just less than three minutes to go.
After a Kerron Johnson three pointer extended the Belmont lead back to 78-71, the Colonels turned the ball over on their next two possessions and the Bruins hung on for the win.
Walden led the Colonels with a game-high 20 points, while DiNunno had 15 and Marcus Lewis also had double figures with 11.
Tarius Johnson finished with nine points and four rebounds, Timmy Knipp had six points, Eric Stutz had four points and five rebounds, Jeff Johnson had three points and Muff had two points.
Belmont had four starters finished in double figures in the game, led by Ian Clark with 21 points.
The Colonels shot the ball well themselves, hitting 50 percent from the floor and 52.4 percent from behind the three-point line. They are the only team this season to shoot better than 50 percent against the Bruins.
Neubauer said the offense hasn’t been the problem in the two loses to Belmont this year, but the Colonels’ defense needs to be better if the two teams meet again down the road.
“We’ve attacked them at the offensive end as well as anyone other than Kansas this year. They are guarding the heck out of people. In both games our offense has been very good,” Neubauer said. “Defensively, its a combination of them being really well coached, having good players and making shots. Do we need more pressure on the ball? Yes. Deny better? Yes. Take away backdoors better? Yes. So its just a combination of them being really good and us not being as good as we needed to be.”
DiNunno agreed that Belmont did a good job on offense, but said the Colonels’ defense was responsible for some of the good showing, but vowed it would improve.
“It was terrible team defense and it started with me. I take responsibility for that game and it’s something we will get right here,” DiNunno said. “They understand their rolls. They understand the extra pass, the skip pass and getting it in the lane and kicking it out. They moved the ball pretty well, but it just comes down to our defense. If we play poorly and they play well offensively this is what is going to happen.”
Neubauer said he feels like the two teams should meet down the road in the OVC Tournament.
“I told the team that there is not another team in our league that is going to beat them in the OVC Tournament. It’s on us. We are the only team in the OVC that is going to beat them in the OVC Tournament,” Neubauer said. “If we want to go to the NCAA Tournament, it is not going to be hoping some other team beats them in the OVC Tournament. The other teams in the league don’t match-up well with them and we’ve got to be the team that beats them.”
The Colonels will be back in action Thursday at UT- Martin, followed by another road game at SEMO on Saturday.