DAYTON — Belmont redshirt freshman point guard Grayson Murphy was pushing the ball, as he likes to do, and he spotted Belmont redshirt freshman big man Nick Muszynski sprinting down the middle of the floor, as he likes to do. Murphy lofted the ball his way.
The only problem, on a night of befuddling mistakes and glorious recoveries for the Bruins, was that Muszysnki was not yet looking for it.
He started to turn as it hit his hands, but it glanced off them and bounded to the floor. It was there for Temple to turn into another basket off another turnover. Instead, Belmont senior guard Kevin McClain picked it up and dropped it into the basket.
Rick Byrd responded by yelling at Murphy. Not in a “Go get ‘em, Tiger!” way, but more in a “What was that, freshman?!” kind of way. Had Byrd known that would be the game-winning basket in the biggest win in Belmont men’s basketball history — Tuesday’s 81-70 triumph over the Owls in an NCAA tournament First Four game at University of Dayton Arena — maybe he would have flashed a smile.
Probably not. Byrd did a lot of yelling in his first NCAA tournament win in eight tries, and all of it was justified. He has built a program on excellent students and citizens who play smart basketball, limiting turnovers, staying connected on defense and burying opponents with offensive efficiency.
He didn’t need this win to prove anything, and he already was destined for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame some day without it. And yes, there was more pressure at hand because Belmont needed the first at-large bid in school history to get here. Byrd and his team surely wanted to justify that endorsement, and all the media-fueled campaigning on Belmont’s behalf that preceded it
But Byrd knows what he wants and when his team is at his best, and this was not the Bruins (27-5) at their best. Which should scare Thursday’s opponent in Jacksonville, Fla., No. 6 seed Maryland.
USA TODAY SPORTS BRACKETS: Dominate the office pool!
NCAA BRACKET TIPS: A guide to dominate your pool
NCAA TOURNAMENT: Sleepers with Final Four potential
It should please Byrd, too, that his team recovered twice from game-changing Temple runs to mount responses of their own, flip the game back their way and send another sideline legend — Owls coach Fran Dunphy — into retirement.
McClain had a monster night with 29 points. Muszynski, a massive absence in Belmont’s OVC title game loss to Murray State with an ankle injury, scored 16. And though Temple’s Nate Pierre-Louis put the clamps on Belmont senior star Dylan Windler (2-for-7, five points), Windler gobbled up 14 rebounds. He had consecutive steals in the first half leading to fast-break baskets for Murphy (nine points, six assists, three turnovers) that halted Temple momentum.
This is a really good team, as more of the nation knows after watching it in a nationally televised, prime-time performance. And it can be a lot better than this. It can play like it did in the 22-6 second-half run that won this game, and clean up some of the things it did in the 21-5 Temple run that preceded it.
The Bruins can give the Terrapins trouble Thursday. That’s no stretch. Now let your imagination run a bit and you can see them getting past troubled LSU after that, banged-up Michigan State after that … bring on Duke and a shot at the Final Four!
One win in this thing can make so much more seem possible.
Follow the Tennessean’s Joe Rexrode on Twitter @joerexrode.