Despite stretches of some of its finest play of the season, Belmont University men’s basketball dropped a 67-56 at Butler Sunday night.
The Bruins, playing at Hinkle Fieldhouse for the first time in 15 years, saw a familiar face in Butler interim head coach Chris Holtmann. The respected coach faced Belmont 13 times from 2002-08 during his time as an assistant coach at Gardner-Webb.
The matchup also featured two of the nation’s most successive programs on the court and in the classroom.
Butler, ranked as high as No. 15 nationally earlier this season, entered play having allowed only one opponent to eclipse 70 points or six three-point field goals in a game (Indiana).
Butler got off to an 8-3 lead on a three-pointer from Kellen Dunham and one Roosevelt Jones free throw
But after missing three of their first four shots, the Bruins quickly worked into an offensive rhythm, unleashing exquisite, unselfish play.
Consecutive three-pointers from freshman Amanze Egekeze (Lake in the Hills, Ill.) and sophomore Taylor Barnette (Lexington, Ky.) gave Belmont a 9-8 lead four minutes in.
The lead swelled to 17-10, as junior Craig Bradshaw (Ridgetop, Tenn.) delivered consecutive three-point plays followed by a gorgeous hit-ahead assist to sophomore Nick Smith (Bentonville, Ark.).
Belmont continued the momentum, parlaying defensive stops into clean looks offensively.
Three-pointers from sophomore Caleb Chowbay (Mt. Juliet, Tenn.) and senior Spencer Turner (Bloomington, Ind.) increased the Belmont lead to 25-14 midway through the first half.
As murmurs grew in historic Hinkle Fieldhouse, the Bruins maintained their poise and purpose.
However, Butler trimmed into the margin on the offensive glass, getting within 29-26 on baskets from Kameron Woods and Dunham.
After sophomore Evan Bradds (Jamestown, Ohio) stabilized the Bruins with a baseline drive, Andrew Chrabascz capped a 6-0 Bulldog run to give the hosts a 32-31 lead with 4:29 left in the half.
Belmont responded with a conventional three-point play from senior Reece Chamberlain (Goodlettsville, Tenn.) and a Barnette driving layin, but a deep Dunham three-pointer gave Butler a 39-38 lead at the half.
Belmont shot 54 percent (14-for-26) from the field in the opening 20 minutes – including 6-for-13 from three-point distance. It was a dazzling display of passing and execution, with nine different Bruins scoring in the first half.
But one category kept Belmont from enjoying a nice halftime lead: second chance points: Butler held a 14-0 edge in second chance points, negating largely quality Bruin defense.
A baseline slam from Bradds and a Smith three-pointer gave Belmont a 43-42 lead with 17:12 remaining.
But following the media timeout, consecutive three-pointers from Dunham and Alex Barlow pushed Butler to a 49-43 lead with 15:08 left.
Bradshaw answered with a corner three-pointer off a baseline out-of-bounds play, but the Bruins would then endure an eight-minute scoring drought.
Butler labored during this stretch as well, but following two missed free throws from Bradds, Tyler Wideman made a fadeaway jumpshot late in the shot clock to give the Bulldogs a 54-46 lead with 8:34 to go.
A Wideman tip-in and one Jones free throw increased Butler’s lead to 57-46 with 6:26 remaining.
In need of a spark, Barnette buried a deep three-pointer to end the dry spell. Bradds then answered with an interior basket to get the Bruins within 57-51 with 4:52 left.
After three Butler free throws, Smith ripped the nets from behind the arc to make the score 60-54 with 3:31 to go.
But after Butler got a reprieve by regaining possession on the arrow after the basketball got stuck between the backboard and the rim, Chrabascz scored inside to push the margin back to eight.
A Chamberlain layin and a defensive stop gave Belmont life with under two minutes remaining, but a promising set play for Bradshaw went by the boards as his layup attempt to cut the margin to four dipped out with 1:44 left.
A Jones layin late in the clock on the subsequent possession all but secured the outcome.
All told, Belmont shot 40 percent (21-for-52) from the field – including 10-for-26 from three-point distance. After the clinical start, the Bruins went cold, going 7-for-26 in the second half.
Bradshaw led Belmont with 11 points, six rebounds and five assists. Bradds had 10 points.
Jones led Butler (10-3) with 20 points.
Belmont (8-5) returns to game action Thursday, Jan. 1 versus Southeast Missouri. Tip-off is set for 1 p.m. CT from the Curb Event Center.
The game will be broadcast live on the OVC Digital Network. The live play-by-play of Voice of the Bruins Kevin Ingram can be heard on the Bruin Sports Network.