In 2008, Belmont nearly became the fifth No. 15 seed in NCAA tournament history to upset a No. 2 seed in the first round.
At the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., it would take the last two of Gerald Henderson’s 21 points, plus a crucial steal from DeMarcus Nelson on the ensuing possession, to give Duke a 71-70 victory over the Bruins. None of the players who appeared in that game for either side will be on the floor when Belmont visits Cameron Indoor Stadium Friday night, but the memory of that nearly-historic contest will loom large.
“It made our program at that time,” Bruin head coach Rick Byrd said. “We hadn’t really come to the nation’s attention, and I think a lot of the guys that are on our team right now we were able to recruit because of the national recognition of that game.”
And for Belmont, which returns nine of the eleven players that averaged double figures in minutes last season, every player counts. Byrd said he does not hesitate to use ten different players to reduce the effects of fatigue and take advantage of a balanced roster.
The Bruins are led on the floor by 6-foot-3 Ian Clark, an efficient scorer and pesky defender whose 12.2 points per game earned him first-team All-Atlantic Sun recognition last season. He is joined on the preseason All-Atlantic Sun team by big men Mick Hedgepeth and Scott Saunders, whom Duke associate head coach Steve Wojciechowski called “ACC-level post players.” The duo combined to average 23.0 points, 11.1 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game last season. Still, Byrd acknowledges that his team will face a size disadvantage against Miles and Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly.
“We’ve got a couple of guys who are pretty good and pretty big, but they’re not Plumlee big or Kelly big,” Byrd said. “And Kelly presents a particularly tough defensive assignment because of his perimeter abilities.”
But Byrd’s biggest concern is preparing his team to face the Blue Devil defense.
“Duke is difficult to prepare for because they switch so much stuff, but they don’t do it with absolute consistency,” Byrd said. “I’d like to hear what they’re told sometimes, because you can watch video and it seems like one time they’ll switch a screen and next time they won’t. So what do I tell our players, other than to try to be unpredictable?”
Despite his uncertainty, his team will be no pushover for the No. 6 Blue Devils. The Bruins led the nation in scoring margin last season, beating their opponents by an average of 17.5 points per game while draining 9.3 3-pointers per contest.
“We’re going to have to play an outstanding defensive game—keep them out of transition, try to limit their three-point shots and really battle their two centers and try to limit their scoring opportunities,” Wojciechowski said.
And then there’s the history. Belmont has not forgotten the Cinderella story that it nearly wrote three and a half years ago against Duke.
“I think it may end up being the one game that I remember the most about,” said Byrd, who is entering his 24th year as Bruin head coach.
His team had made the postseason in each of the two years prior to the matchup, but it had been embarrassed both times, at the hands of UCLA by 34 points and Georgetown by 25. So the game’s first defensive possession was hardly encouraging for 6-foot-5 forward Will Peeples and his teammates.
“I came down and saw Kyle Singler,” Peeples said, “I thought I played a pretty good defensive possession and he shot a 19-foot jumper fading away, and nothing but net. I thought, ‘It’s going to be a long night.’”
But Belmont hung with the Blue Devils, never letting Duke lead by more than seven. With 8:29 to play, the Bruins still hung within two points.
“I just kept expecting them to run away with it at some point,” Peeples said, “Then I look up and see seven or eight minutes left and we’re still in a two-point game... and I think, ‘I’ll be damned. Maybe we can win this game.’”
Buoyed by a growing anti-Duke crowd, Byrd’s confident squad dictated play through the final minutes. A pair of made free throws by Justin Hare would give Belmont a 70-69 lead with 2:02 left, and the Bruins were in the driver’s seat. But Henderson went coast-to-coast with 11.9 seconds left to give Duke back a one-point advantage. Nelson stole the inbound pass on the ensuing Belmont possession. He was fouled immediately, but missed the free throw, and Peeples pulled down the rebound. After a timeout, he threw the ball in to Hare, whose half-court heave rimmed out.
“I still tell people we should’ve won that game. I think we outplayed them,” Peeples said. “I stand by the fact that that night, we were the better team.”
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