Climer: Bruins stumble again in Big Dance

8:46 AM, Mar 22, 2013   |    comments
Belmont coach Rick Byrd yells at Trevor Noack during the team's loss to Arizona Thursday in Salt Lake City. / Jae S. Lee / The Tennessean
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Commentary by David Climer, The Tennessean

One of these years, Belmont is going to break through.

The bracket will fall the Bruins' way with the right matchup against a favored team that takes them for granted.

But that day has not yet come.

Belmont's sixth NCAA Tournament appearance ended like the previous five, with the Bruins losing to a superior team. This time it was Arizona that did the dishonors with an 81-64 decision on Thursday evening.

For Belmont, the beatings go on. This game followed form. The Bruins' five previous tournament losses were by an average of 17.8 points. Thus, the 17-point defeat followed the script.

"We had a lot of expectations, but it just didn't work out," said senior guard Kerron Johnson, who led the Bruins with 22 points.

But there is some honor in defeat. Look, it's better to lose your first game in the NCAA Tournament than to win the NIT championship. Quick, who won last year's NIT? I think you see my point.

But that is small consolation for the Bruins right now.

They arrived at EnergySolutions Arena, the home of the NBA's Utah Jazz, looking for a bracket breakthrough. Their No. 11 regional seeding, the best in the program's history, was reason for hope.

And Arizona was something of a wild card, a talented but inconsistent team. The Wildcats opened the season with 14 straight victories, but had played uneven basketball over the past two months.

Against Belmont, everything evened out for Arizona. And when you consider the pedigrees of the two programs and the conferences they call home, it was clear that if the Wildcats played anything approaching their ability, the Bruins were in trouble.

Guess what happened?

The Wildcats played up to their ability.

And the Bruins were in trouble.

So much for executive privilege. President Obama had picked Belmont in his bracket, something that Arizona coach Sean Miller made sure did not escape the attention of his players. Any chance the Bruins had of taking the Wildcats by surprise was compromised.

Look, the president wasn't the only one to take the plunge with Belmont. If you were looking for an upset, this was a sexy pick.

In noting the impact of his senior class, Belmont coach Rick Byrd made reference to what proved to be off-target predictions by the president and CBS analyst Seth Davis among others, saying:

"They have put us in position where some people literally expect us to win this game against a great traditional power."

It was a tough matchup and Byrd knew it. And it didn't help that the Arizona team Byrd had seen on tape was markedly different than the one he saw on the floor on Thursday night.

"I was more impressed with the team that I saw than I was in scouting them," he said. "I thought they were more engaged and more focused. If they play that way, they can beat a lot of people."

For all the pre-game predictions, Belmont never really had a chance. The Bruins survived a slow start but not a bad finish to the first half and a lousy start to the second.

Over a period of eight minutes and change that encompassed the end of the first half and the opening of the second, Arizona outscored the Bruins 20-5. That turned a three-point game into a comfortable - or uncomfortable, depending on your allegiances - 18-point margin.

Belmont made a nice run deep in the second half, cutting Arizona's lead to 64-53 at the 5½-minute mark, but the Wildcats regained focus and pulled away.

"It seemed like every time we would make a run and start to get back into the game, they'd make a 3-pointer or drive in for a layup or dunk," said Bruins junior J.J. Mann, who finished with 13 points.

"When you work that hard to get back into the game and they answer it with a 3, it's kind of demoralizing."

It didn't help that when it really mattered, Belmont couldn't throw it in the Great Salt Lake. The Bruins shot just 25.9 percent in the first half and fell behind 32-20.

Worse, the 3-point shot that was counted upon to be the equalizer was anything but. Belmont, which shot 38.6 percent on treys during the season, made only eight of 27 (29.6 percent). Arizona ended up with one more 3-pointer than the Bruins.

It all added up to more sadness amid the March Madness. Belmont is 0-for-NCAAs. But something tells me this won't be the Bruins last visit to the NCAA bracket.

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