EDWARDSVILLE — Carlos Anderson, a freshman for the SIUE men’s basketball team, said the Cougars are making progress.
It showed regularly Wednesday. Ohio Valley Conference power Belmont had to fight off the Cougars, 85-77, in front of 1,007 fans at the Vadalabene Center. Belmont, which represented the OVC in last season’s NCAA Tournament, improved to 10-6 and 2-0. SIUE dropped to 3-12 and 0-3. The Cougars have lost five in succession.
“We have to find a way to put two good halves together and keep growing as a team,” said Anderson, a 6-foot-4 freshman from Alton. He scored 16 points and teamed with Keenan Simmons (21 points) and Yemi Makanjuola (18 points) to make a second-half charge at Belmont. Point guard C.J. Carr contributed 6 points and 9 assists.
The Bruins led 42-29 at half, but couldn’t put the finishing touches on their win until the final minute. The Cougars rallied to knot things at 59-59 with 10:45 remaining and didn’t wilt in the closing moments.
“I thought SIUE played very well and with a lot of heart,” said Belmont coach Rick Byrd, quite familiar with both attributes. He has guided the Bruins to 721 wins — and counting — during his 35 seasons at the school in Nashville. Belmont has won 20 or more games and qualified for postseason play 9 of the last 10 years. And seven times since 2006, the Bruins have advanced to the NCAA’s Big Dance.
Byrd added, “It was anybody’s game tonight and probably their (Cougars) game at one point. I was really impressed with their team and their coaching staff. We just had a bunch of kids that made some big plays down the stretch.
“Road wins are hard to come by in this conference.”
Evan Bradds and Craig Bradhsaw both made it easier for Belmont. Bradds, a 6-7 junior and grandson of the late Gary Bradds, an All-America player at Ohio State, scored 22 points and snared 11 rebounds. Bradshaw, a 6-3 senior, also accounted for 22 points.
“Both of them are good players and all-conference type of players,” first-year SIUE coach Jon Harris said. “They stepped up and made big plays for them.”
After Burak Eslik of SIUE hit a 3-pointer to tie it at 59-59, the Cougars kept pace with the Bruins for the next 6 minutes. Anderson’s trey trimmed a Belmont lead to 67-66 with 6:50 remaining.
Then the Bruins outdistanced the Cougars with a stronger finish. They forged in front 74-68 with less than 4 minutes to go and widened their advantage to 78-70 with 2:26 remaining. The Cougars got no closer than five points the rest of the way.
“The difference was that their players made big plays down the stretch,” Harris said. “And we didn’t play very well in the first half. We need to find a way to play two good halves. It takes more discipline and maturity.”
Anderson added, “We changed our mindset the second half and that helped us.”
Thanks mainly to Simmons, the Cougars outscored the Bruins 48-43 in the second half. The 6-6 sophomore from Michigan City, Ind., hit his first seven shots after the break and scored all of his 21 points in the final 20 minutes. He made 10 of 11 shots, including a trey, the last half.
“I was in a rhythm and the guys on the team were getting me the ball,” Simmons said. “I think we put it all together in the second half, but we need to be more consistent.”
Anderson added, “We will learn from it because you can never be satisfied with anything.”
SIUE made only 10 of 35 shots the first half, then connected on 19 of 34 field-goal tries the second half. Overall, the Cougars were 29 of 69, or 42 percent from the field, and 12 of 13 from the foul line. Belmont, however, made 31 of 55 shots, or 56 percent.
Harris said, “Our guys didn’t get rattled, even when we were 13 points down at halftime. They are battle-tested and I think we’re growing. Our record doesn’t show it because we have a challenging schedule.”
Both Byrd and Harris see a dogfight developing in the two-division OVC.
“The conference is better than I thought it was going to be,” Byrd said. “SIUE is getting better and other teams are getting better, too.”
Harris said, “I think every game in the conference is going to be similar to this one. It will come down to a handful of possessions at the end of the games to decide the outcome of them."
SIUE plays Saturday at Tennessee State in Nashville and then welcomes Morehead State (at 8 p.m. on Jan. 14) and Eastern Kentucky (at 1 p.m. on Jan. 16).
BELMONT 85, SIUE 77
Belmont 42 43 — 85
SIUE 29 48 — 77
Belmont (10-6, 2-0) – Austin Luke 2, Taylor Barnette 3, Craig Bradshaw 22, Amanze Egekeze 14, Evan Bradds 22, Nick Smith 3, Dylan Windler 7, Kevin McClain 12. 2FG-24 3FG-7 FT-16 PF-14.
SIUE (3-12, 0-3) – Burak Eslik 5, C.J. Carr 6, Carlos Anderson 16, Yemi Makanjuola 18, Keenan Simmons 21, Grant Fiorentinos 2, Jake Newton 7, Jalen Henry 2. 2FG-22 3FG-7 FT-12 PF-19.