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.
“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.