Here is a story from columnist David Climer of The Tennessean, our Gannett partner in Nashville. For more coverage from the Belmont side of Thursday’s game against Arizona, go to The Tennessean’s sports pages.
By David Climer
SALT LAKE CITY — Too big.
Too bad for Belmont.
Sixth-seeded Arizona showed up for the NCAA Tournament intent on playing up to its pedigree, and 11th-seeded Belmont didn’t have enough answers, ultimately falling 81-64 on Thursday night.
For Belmont (26-7), it was a painful repeat of past NCAA Tournament losses. Only once in their six appearances have the Bruins played a close game — a memorable 71-70 loss to second-seeded Duke in 2008.
In the past three NCAA Tournaments, Belmont has lost to Wisconsin by 14 points, Georgetown by 15 and now Arizona by 17.
“It’s just not any fun in that locker room after a game like that,” Belmont coach Rick Byrd said. “… I think this was pretty simple. Arizona just outplayed us. They played a better game than we did.”
Despite the Bruins’ recent run of tournament appearances, they’re not in Arizona’s league when it comes to March Madness. This is the Wildcats’ 30th NCAA appearance, including two trips that were later vacated.
Excluding appearances that have been stricken from the record, Arizona (26-7) ranks fifth nationally in total NCAA Tournament games played at 70.
Belmont survived a slow start, but not a slow finish to the first half or a difficult start to the second. Five minutes into the second half, Arizona led 45-23 and the game essentially was over.
The Bruins made one serious run after that, scoring 10 straight points to cut the deficit to 64-53, but the Wildcats regained their bearings.
“When you get down that early in the first half to a good team, you’ve almost got to play perfect to try to get back in the game and win it,” said Belmont’s Ian Clark, who finished with 21 points.
Arizona had answers for everything the Bruins threw at it — and then some. The Wildcats held an overwhelming 44-18 rebounding advantage. They blocked five shots.
And Arizona’s perimeter players held their own against Belmont. Guards Mark Lyons, Nick Johnson and Kevin Parrom combined for 47 points, with Lyons scoring 23.
But the key was defense. The combination of Arizona’s aggressive man-to-man defense and tournament jitters shook Belmont into 25.9 percent shooting in the first half.
“We approached this week with great focus on the defensive end,” said Johnson, who was matched with Clark much of the game.
The Bruins scored only four points on their first 14 possessions. Arizona’s size affected them near the basket, and they also failed to connect on some open 3-pointers.
“This is just crying over spilled milk, but we missed five layups in the first half,” said Byrd, whose team earned the NCAA berth by winning the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament. “We missed the same kinds of 3s that they made throughout the game, and if you’re going to beat a team that is that good and that talented, you kind of have to make it go the other way.
“You’ve got to make big-time plays and finish layups and we have to shoot it better than they shoot it, and we didn’t do that.”
Ultimately, Arizona was just too big, too good and too focused.