Belmont Buries TSU as One Unbeaten Falls
Craig Bradshaw was a man on an island. Breaking out, knifing through three blue bodies, Bradshaw was hunting for a driving lane that wasn’t there. He found Austin Luke. Luke held the ball for merely a second and sneakily lead a recharged Bradshaw. Layup good.
The shoulders of Keron Deshields sunk. Tahjere McCall took a deep, exhausted breath. Despite countless Tennessee State University (14-5, 5-1) buckets the massive 16-point halftime lead barely crumbled away.
In the end Belmont (15-6, 7-0) won 103-95 in a battle of the only two remaining OVC unbeaten teams.
Evan Bradds starred again for Belmont, while Luke was the ultimate provider. Luke tied a career high with 11 assists.
Belmont is 75-4 in home games overall and has never lost an OVC game in Curb Events Center. They are a constant atop the division and it will take even more than a ferocious, proud Tennessee State team gave today to knock them off that perch.
“They are the gold standard and we are trying to get there,” said TSU Head Coach Dana Ford. “Hopefully we learned that if we tighten up a few things, particularly our toughness on the defensive end and our ability to make free throws, we will give ourselves a chance to beat somebody as good as Belmont.”
Belmont has come out of the dugout swinging big early all year. Sunday afternoon the Bruins bounded to a startlingly quick 15-6 lead out of the gates. BU scored seven points before TSU’s elite guard Deshields even touched the ball.
“Everybody knows we hang our hat on shooting,” said Luke. “Hitting those shots early is really big for everybody’s confidence.”
If you are going to beat the champ you better get him early. Well, TSU did not get Belmont early.
On the first four halfcourt possessions Bradds touched the ball four times. He was an obvious priority for Head Coach Rick Byrd.
“We decided to guard him one-on-one and he kicked us,” said Coach Ford. “You have to pick your poison when you come over here and play good ole’ Belmont.”
Bradds finished with a career-high 36 points (12-14 FG). Worse for TSU he absorbed fouls, the officials serenading the arena with whistles.
Free throws were a gigantic part of the contest. Bradds made a dozen, but Tennessee State shot 46 free throws. Both Deshields and McCall made 10 each.
“They were driving us like crazy,” said Luke. “They have a couple guys that can get to the rim any time they want.”
McCall had a wonderful 25 points after the halftime break. Tahjere was a wizard around the rim. He constantly contorted his body to avoid contact. Despite the acrobatics he still softly lofted the ball in, time after time. McCall’s second half will be lost in the final score, but he scored 32, most of them in a dire situation.
“We had no chance to guard him honestly,” said Luke. “He does the Euro-steps and all that. We couldn’t stop him. Credit to those guys.”
The other accomplished guard, Deshields contributed 33 points (Career High), many of them at the rim.
The two weaknesses for Belmont this year have been defensive rebounding and perimeter on-ball defense. Generally they only get exposed on either front for short stretches. If they do fall in OVC play these are two likely culprits.
Last season Austin Luke scored three outside shots. This year he was the “heir apparent” in Coach Byrd’s offense. Today he was exceptional.
Luke nearly poked it two-handed in the open floor. Luke knocked down a career-high 5 three-pointers.
“I tweaked my shot a little bit (in the offseason),” said Luke. “It has never been my thing to score. Whenever I have to score, I have to take it sometimes whenever they put a lot of attention on Evan or Craig. I put in a lot of work this offseason. I broke my foot in June. I did a lot of form shooting after that.”
Luke credits a Belmont graduate assistant with helping him retool.
“Matt Matoh, he helped me a lot with my form and getting my shot right this summer.”
Luke finished with a career high 20 points on 6-12 shooting. His early scoring was integral.
“If you talk about a guy that probably made the biggest difference it was Austin,” said Coach Byrd. “They played off him to begin with.”
Coach Byrd was very pleased that Luke kept his turnovers down against a scrappy, physical perimeter defense.”
“Three (turnovers) is pretty acceptable for a guy that does as much as he does with the basketball,” said Coach Byrd. “This makes me more confident in my team, seeing him play like this.”