By Scott Harris
Plenty has been written and discussed about the extraordinary events within the mediocre confines of Municipal Auditorium on March 9th. Belmont’s win over Murray State in the OVC Championship was an extraordinarily epic game. A near-perfect night … one shining moment … and not just because of who won the game.
I am a proud alumnus of Belmont University. My passion for the game of basketball is eclipsed only by the adoration I have for my 7-year-old son and the time we spend together. Since the beginning of time and the invention of sport, countless dads have tried (with varying degrees of success) to brainwash their sons into loving the same teams that they do. It can’t be helped. It’s part of the DNA of being a father to a son. It brings me great joy to say I’ve been fairly successful in this endeavor, and the Belmont Bruins men’s basketball team tops the list of “my” teams that are now “ours.” We go to as many games as we can together. Belmont basketball is our thing.
Knowing his dad hooped a little (in high school), and given our enthusiasm for the sport as spectators, the boy has been chomping at the bit to play on a basketball team of his own. Naturally, I jumped at the chance to coach his very first basketball team this past winter at our local YMCA. In fact, it’s the reason we were at this year’s OVC Championship game. We got free tickets because my little baller was part of the group of kids honored at halftime for the Y’s “Good Sport Award” for outstanding sportsmanship during the season. Playing the game the “right way” is something we talk about often and he has really taken it to heart. He was really proud, not to mention thrilled to stand on the court in front of the several thousand people who hadn’t yet made a beeline to the restrooms, as the announcer explained why he and his counterparts were being paraded onto the floor. (While most of the other kids in the group were wearing their Y jerseys, not surprisingly, my son opted for his Belmont jersey. #awesome) We would have been there for that no matter which two teams made it to the final game. The fact that our Bruins were playing made it extra-special for both of us.
At the under-8 timeout of the first half, we were summoned to the area behind the Murray St. basket to get instructions for the halftime presentation. Belmont was down by eight at the time and the game didn’t look much better from the floor than it did from our Racer-infested, 5th row balcony seats. (Their fans were everywhere!)
Down by six, the Bruins made a huge seven-point push in the final 1:30 of the half to go ahead 22-21. We were riveted to the action and standing so close we could practically feel the sweat. Although we didn’t know it at the time, we were getting an up-close preview of the dramatics that ESPN would lead with later on that evening on SportsCenter.
Allow me to pause here to say a word about Coach Rick Byrd. He has done a remarkable job with this program over his long and storied career. No one could have ever imagined the kind of success that Belmont has achieved and he has been at the helm the entire time. Overseeing the treacherous transition from the NAIA to Division 1, he has led the team to 6 conference tourney titles in 2 different leagues and now 6 NCAA Tournament appearances in the last 8 years. And we’ve only been in a bid-eligible conference for 12 seasons … 12 SEASONS!!! Incredible. I’d like to begin a campaign here and now to name the floor of the Curb Event Center “Rick Byrd Court” … the man is one heck of a coach, not to mention an outstanding human being. More times than not, he not only gets it right, but he shines in the process. And Belmont’s first OVC championship game was no different.
The 2nd half was brutal. Murray St. woke up and proceeded to take back all the momentum. Behind a barrage of offensive efficiency that included fast breaks, long threes and alley-oops, it seemed like they were going to pack up another OVC trophy and send it back to Kentucky on the Pony Express. (I read later that the Bruins’ win probability at the 2:25 mark was 5.4%!) That Racers advantage seemed to last FOR-EV-ER.
Down 7 with just over 2 minutes to go in regulation and surrounded by overly boisterous fans donning blue & yellow (did I mention that the Racer fans showed up en-force?), we feared the worst. Exhausted from the excitement and anticipation of the day, my son just sat down in his seat, giving in to the possibility that our Bruins, like him, might be running out of steam.
And then … they started to fight back. A defensive flurry, a timely three, a teardrop, and a gorgeous 15-footer to tie it up. They found life. And earned another 5 minutes of overtime to somehow dig out a win.
That OT session will go down in Belmont basketball lore. I know it’s cliché to say, but Hollywood could not have scripted a more dramatic scene than what actually happened. We’ve all seen similar game situations on TV as part of conference or NCAA tournaments, but I’ve never been there to witness one in person.
There were so many remarkable moments during those final 5 minutes: Kerron Johnson landing on his chin and having to leave the game. Spencer Turner shooting Kerron’s free throws completely cold off the bench and then making arguably the most balls-out hustle/loose ball/timeout play of the season. Kerron’s clutch free throws to tie it at 68. Isaiah Cannan’s off the leg, over-and-back turnover. I found myself wanting to call my son’s attention to each of these plays … to explain the gravitas of the situation and just how rare it is to experience this level of play in this kind of atmosphere.
Then I realized that I didn’t have to say a word. At the tender age of seven, my son has been to dozens of college basketball games. He’s even seen overtime and double-overtime games where our Bruins have come out victorious. But not like this … nothing like this. I looked at him and he was riveted to what was unfolding before us. He completely understood how big the situation was. As I held him up so he could see the action, the only thing I said to him was after the Cannan gaffe: “These next 25 seconds are what college basketball in March is all about … we’re about to find out how badly our Bruins want to win this championship.”
After Kerron’s game-winner (which I will always affectionately refer to as “The Shot”), we jumped up and down, screaming at the top of our lungs with a hand in the air, joining the other Belmont fans in celebration while the approximately 1.2 million Murray State fans around us stood there in shocked silence. It was the most incredible basketball game I had ever experienced in my life.
We went down to the floor to get a closer view for all of the post-game celebrations with the other Belmont fans. We watched the trophy presentation, saw the team cut down the net, cheered for all our players as they were announced, all the standard fare for the victors of a championship team headed to the Big Dance.
The thrill of the win plus the affirmation of my son’s good sportsmanship at halftime equaled one special night … one shining moment … and we drank it in. If there were any doubts about my son’s love for the Belmont Bruins or even for basketball in general, they were completely extinguished. While holding my hand on the way back to the car, he said, “Dad, I’m gonna remember this night FOREVER!”
Me too, buddy … me too.