Belmont basketball has a blast in NCAA Tournament

Craig Bradshaw backpedaled down the court, turned towards the sidelines, and bellowed out, “I called that,” with a huge smile sweeping across his face.

Bradshaw had just missed the rim by a solid two feet on a 3-point attempt, only to connect high up on the backboard, with his shot ricocheting perfectly into the bottom of the net, pulling his 15th seeded Bruins to within two of second-seed Virginia, 62-60, with 4:26 remaining in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

And now Bradshaw was having a blast.

Belmont would eventually fall 79-67 as the Cavaliers closed out the game on a 17-7 run, but it didn’t for a second diminish their magical year, capped by an improbable run to the tourney.

“First off, we played a great basketball team. Virginia made the winning plays in the last three minutes that we didn’t make, and they deserve to win. They were the better team,” Belmont coach Rick Byrd said after the game. “That being said, I’m certainly proud of our team’s performance, I’m proud of their fight and grit and determination and the plays that they made, and we played a great team.

“I don’t have the play-by-play but somewhere in the neighborhood of three minutes we had a real, real chance to win that basketball game and just didn’t get it done.”

Bradshaw led all scorers with 25 points, going 10-of-19 from the field and 5-of-9 from beyond the arc. The 6-foot-3-inch guard, who appeared to be playing at the ankles of the towering Cavaliers, also racked up nine rebounds.

Photo courtesy of Belmont Athletics
Photo courtesy of Belmont Athletics
“I don’t think you ever think you’re going to win the game against those guys, they string together some stops,” Bradshaw said. “I felt good about how I was shooting. We were running a good offense and they just made some good stops at the end, made more winning plays in the end.”

“When Craig plays like he did today and he’s obviously a first team OVC guy and played like that a lot he makes us a way better team,” Byrd added. “He’s fearless. He loves situations like that, that he’s in. Who he’s playing against and the circumstances in the game matter not to him at all. “

The Cavaliers entered the game leading the nation scoring defense at roughly 50 points allowed per game, but according to Belmont senior Reece Chamberlain, the Bruins handled the high-pressure defense well.

“They’re a great team, we knew that coming in, that the shots we normally get were going to come tough,” he said. “I thought we did a great job, and there’s only one stretch in the first half where we kind of got carried away and didn’t run offense but I think overall we did a pretty good job of moving the ball and working in until we got some good shots.”

For the Cavaliers, four players reached double digits, spearheaded by 22 from junior guard Malcolm Brogdon. Justin Anderson, who missed games from Feb. 11 to March 7, added 15 points and five rebounds in the winning effort.

“Well, I think he’s closer than he was a week ago obviously. He stepped back and made a three tonight and that had to make him all feel good,” Byrd said regarding Anderson’s performance.

“Overall he’s their best offensive player I think,” Byrd added. “But the beauty of their team is that you’ve got guys, Brogdon can do that, Gill can have a great game, what did he get, 16? You’ve got a lot of guys on that team that can score 15 or 16 points in a game and up can’t just focus on any one guy. They’re a better offensive team than they get credit for only because they’re such a great defensive team.”

Despite a sour end to the season, the future is bright for Belmont. Graduating only three seniors, the Bruins will return four of their five starters, and their top three scorers in Bradshaw, and rising juniors Taylor Barnette and Evan Bradds, who each played a staring role in getting the Bruins to the NCAA Tournament.

Both Bradshaw and Bradds exhibited excitement when they were asked whether or not they think they’ll return to the tournament next year.

“I don’t think you can say anything for sure but we have a really young team and Mack (Mercer) played great tonight and I’m really looking forward to his development,” Bradshaw said. “Amanze (Egekeze) is the starter, we’ve got really young guys, and I think we’re going to be really good next year. It’s up to us.

“Like he said we are very young. I’m excited, we all work really hard, so we’re just hoping we can work hard enough to get back here next year,” Bradds said.

Evan Bradds, Belmont basketball: The shots before The Shot

Evan Bradds. Photo Courtesy of Belmont Athletics
Evan Bradds. Photo Courtesy of Belmont Athletics

One day before Taylor Barnette hit The Shot, his teammate Evan Bradds had to hit the shots.

On March 7, Barnette gathered a hurried pass and hoisted up a deep 3-pointer with multiple hands in his face. When Barnette let fly amidst a sea of defenders in a deafening arena, the Belmont basketball was trailing 87-85 against then-No. 25 Murray State, and a loss in the Ohio Valley Conference championship game seemed all but assured. When his shot splashed down with 3.2 seconds left, Belmont was going dancing.

One day earlier, a pin-drop silence enveloped the Nashville Municipal Auditorium as Bradds stepped to the free-throw line. With 26 seconds remaining, and the Bruins trailing Eastern Kentucky, 52-51, in the OVC semifinal, it was up to Bradds to keep the Bruins’ season alive.

“I was just thinking to myself: ‘Make these because I don’t want to go to overtime,’” says Bradds.
For the first 39 minutes and 34 seconds, the 6-foot-6-inch sophomore forward who currently ranks third in the entire nation in field goal percentage at 69.3 percent had slogged through an uncharacteristically bad day: 2-of-6 from the floor and 0-for-2 from the line.

But when it mattered the most, Bradds didn’t miss, swishing both shots for his fifth and sixth points of the night, setting the stage for his teammate’s heroics one day later.

It was something Bradds had been working towards his entire life.

Youthful competition and family ties

Bradds was raised in Jamestown, Ohio, and from his earliest memories, the game wasn’t simply a constant in his life. It was a legacy.

“Basketball has always been something that I liked to do,” Bradds says. “My parents never really pushed me to do it, but it’s kind of a family thing, and I just loved to play with my friends around the block and it ended up being something that I was good at.”

Calling basketball a ‘family thing,’ is a rather large understatement for the Bradds family. Evan’s father, David, played college ball at Dayton. His grandfather, Gary, still stands as one of the greatest players in Ohio State history, where his No. 35 jersey hangs retired after he earned All-American and AP Player of the Year honors in 1964 and was drafted by the Baltimore Bullets with the third overall pick in that year’s NBA draft.

Bradds carried on the family tradition, following in his grandfather and father’s footsteps, playing at Greeneview High School, but he says he never felt pressure to live up to his father or grandfather’s careers.

“All that stuff is awesome and I’m super proud, but I’ve always played for myself and for my teammates,” says Bradds. “I’m proud of it, but it’s not like I felt the pressure to perform or be as good as they were. It was always there, but it’s never been a factor of why I chose to play basketball or anything like that.”

High school success

After following in the footsteps of his family, Bradds earned varsity letters at Greeneview in all four years. Under head coach Bill Green, Bradds’ teams went an astounding 74-16, and he averaged 23.4 points and 11.0 rebounds per game as a senior in a championship season. Along the way he earned 2013 Ohio First Team All-State and Academic All-State honors, while becoming the all-time leading scorer in Greeneview High School history and emerging as one of the top players in all of Ohio.

“I continued to play, and during high school we had a bunch of good high school games and won a lot of games and I just continued to do whatever it took for our team to win,” Bradds says. “I had an excellent experience, had a great coach and great teammates. It was a great support system.”

As a junior, Bradds committed to Ohio University, but altered his path due to a coaching change at the school, and later decided that Belmont was the place for him

“You can’t go wrong with the history that Belmont’s had, especially in the last couple of years,” he says. “One of the reasons was obviously Coach [Rick] Byrd is one of the greatest coaches in the country, in my opinion.”

Improving throughout college

Bradds appeared in 35 games as a Bruins freshman, scoring double figures in 16. A four-time OVC Freshman of the Week, Bradds finished second in the league in field goal percentage of 65.1 percent, while averaging 8.8 points and 4.1 rebounds per game and earning Academic All-Conference honors.

“From my freshman year, I tried to step up and be more of a leader of the team. I knew that we were going to be pretty young, so I just wanted to take a bigger role on the team,” says Bradds.

As a sophomore, Bradds’ numbers took a big leap, as he led the league in field goal percentage at 69.3 percent, while averaging 14.3 points and 7.2 rebounds per game.

“For this season, I’ve worked a little bit on my scoring and on the defensive end. So, I’m just trying to do whatever it takes for my team to get the win,” says Bradds. “I think I’ve gotten a little stronger from my freshman year and my finishing around the rim has gotten a lot better.

“[I’ve] Made a lot more shots, mainly due to my teammates, and I’ve rebounded the ball a lot better than I did last year as well.”

Bradds credits his teammates and his competitive nature for his improvement.

“It’s the competition. I’m super competitive,” he says. “So, I like to win and hate to lose. I love the game and love the competition.”

Bradds was named All-OVC Second Team as a sophomore, and led the nation in field goal percentage since mid-January at 70.4 percent, and cracked double figures 24 times over the course of the year.

“I would probably say the best part of my game would probably be my ability to finish around the rim,” Bradds says. “I like to think that I have pretty good presence around the rim. My teammates trust me down there and feed me the ball a lot when I get a smaller guard on me.”

March Madness

The Bruins went 19-10 in the regular season, and 11-5 in the OVC, carrying a four game winning streak into the conference tournament.

“We had our ups and downs throughout the year,” he says. “Like at the end of the year, we finally put it all together and rode a couple game win streaks into the tournament.”

Still, the Bruins entered the OVC tournament as decided underdogs, a Murray State championship all but a foregone conclusion for a team that went 16-0 in conference play and entered the conference tournament riding a 24-game winning streak.

Barnette proved to be the hero when the Bruins played giant slayer in the championship game, but it was Bradds’ free throws after ripping down an offensive rebound and drawing a foul, that made those heroics possible.

“Something for sure that I’ve had to work on,” said Bradds, who hit just 64.3 percent of his freebies during the year. “I’ve never really been a very good free throw shooter, but you just got to keep working at it.”

NCAA Tournament Bound

Every player dreams of stepping out under the bright lights of the NCAA Tournament, and Bradds is determined to make the most out of the opportunity.

“As a team goal, I think it’s every team’s goal to make the NCAA tournament,” says Bradds.
The Bruins will be decided underdogs when they take the floor on Friday as a 15-seed against two-seed Virginia, but Bradds and the Bruins aren’t going to simply be happy to be there: they’re coming to win.

“Shoot the ball well, play solid defense, and grab some rebounds,” says Bradds of the keys to a first round upset, adding, “just play as hard as possible and hopefully win as many games as we possibly can as a team.”

Evan Bradds. Photo Credit: Belmont Athletics
Evan Bradds. Photo Credit: Belmont Athletics

For more untold stories of the underdogs that make March Madness and the NCAA Tournament so magical, read here.

Belmont basketball’s Taylor Barnette: A shot of faith

Taylor Barnette. Photo Credit: Ben McKeown/Belmont University Athletics
Taylor Barnette. Photo Credit: Ben McKeown/Belmont University Athletics

The left-handed form and rotation on the ball was exactly the same as when he started shooting on the hoop in his driveway in Lexington, Ky., all those years ago.

Only this time, the stage was so much bigger and the stakes so much greater.

With 5.4 seconds remaining in the Ohio Valley Conference championship game, Taylor Barnette took a hurried pass from teammate Reece Chamberlain roughly 25 feet behind the hoop and fired a Hail Mary up towards the heavens.

Barnette’s shot hung in the air for 2.2 seconds, which might as well have been an eternity, before splashing down through the hoop, slaying 25th ranked Murray State and sending Barnette and his Belmont Bruins on to the NCAA Tournament.

“It was a dream come true,” says Barnette, who, despite drilling the shot refuses to stand alone in the spotlight. “Credit to my teammates though–especially during the final play. A great screen by Nick Smith and great pass from Reece Chamberlain.”

“I didn’t expect to do it frankly,” says Belmont basketball head coach Rick Byrd of the upset. “I’m not saying I thought it wouldn’t be possible, but we are just so young–we lost five conference games and we didn’t win the regular season for the first time in five years. We just weren’t [that] good of a team all year long, but we did have a chance to improve and we have improved. This one is special in that way, we overachieved to win. To get a win against Murray State just says a lot about these kids.”

Two years ago, Barnette, now a 6-foot-3-inch red-shirt sophomore, was in a Virginia Cavaliers uniform, averaging 2.6 points, 0.7 rebounds, 0.7 assists and 9.5 minutes in 26 games as a true freshman. Despite playing limited minutes, Barnette carved out a niche in arguably the best conference in the country as a sniper off the bench, shooting 47.1 percent from the field and ranked second on the team at 43.2 percent from downtown, drilling 10-of-17 (58.8%) 3-point attempts in ACC play.

But after the season, Barnette decided to transfer, landing at Belmont.

“I want to put that in the past,” Barnette says, refusing to delve into the details of his transfer. “Based on fit, I thought the combination of reasons were larger enough. I’m very happy.”

Barnette says there are no hard feelings, and credits his time at Virginia for spurring his personal growth.

“I’m thankful for Virginia,” Barnette says. “It was a learning experience. I learned a lot and it was fun.”

And after spending last season sitting out per NCAA transfer rules, Barnette ranked third on the Bruins in scoring, averaging 10.7 points per game while starting all 31 of the Bruins contests. Barnette credits Byrd and the Bruins’ team-above-individual mentality for the success he is not enjoying.

“I really believe in this team, and coach Byrd is the best in the country. He is going to have us prepared and we have to buy into that,” says Barnette, who spent two days after his heroics home visiting his family, of his faith in his team’s ability to compete in the NCAAs.

Barnette’s faith in the Bruins stems from his faith in God, as he truly believes that this was God’s plan all along.

To describe this years Belmont basketball program, Barnette cites Romans, Chapter 12 in the King James Bible.

Romans 12:3-8

“For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith. For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; Or ministry, let us wait on our ministering: or he that teacheth, on teaching; Or he that exhorteth, on exhortation: he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that sheweth mercy, with cheerfulness.”

“Like the passage states, this team has different gifts,” Barnette says. “Every one of these guys has a part. They all do things to the fullest.”

And if another moment comes where the Bruins are down to the last shot, Barnette would not shy away from taking it again.

“If coach called for me to shoot it I would,” Barnette says. “But, if I saw a teammate open I would pass it, because I believe in them to make that.”

Belmont will be entering the tournament with a clean-slate, and it is one and done from there on out. But one thing that is definite about this year’s Bruins is that its players believe in one another, and like Barnette’s Christian belief–he will continue to prosper, following the plans that await him.

“This team is so special to me,” Barnette said. “We keep a strong attitude. Been getting great opportunities and doing everything in my control. This is what we dream of, everything we have done has been for this moment.”

Barnette, Byrd and 15-seed Belmont will tip off their NCAA Tournament on Friday when they face off against, fittingly, Barnett’s former team: second-seeded Virginia.

Taylor Barnette. Photo Credit: Ben McKeown/Belmont University Athletics
Taylor Barnette. Photo Credit: Ben McKeown/Belmont University Athletics