After 33 seasons on the job, Rick Byrd finally has an NCAA tournament win. Win No. 805 may have been the sweetest for the veteran coach.
In his eighth trip to the Big Dance, Byrd’s Belmont Bruins took care of business in the First Four in Dayton, Ohio, beating the Temple Owls 81-70 on Tuesday.
After trailing by five points with about 11 minutes to play, Byrd’s side embarked on a 20-5 run over the next seven minutes to take 10-point lead.
Belmont was led by 29 points from senior guard Kevin McClain, who also tallied four rebounds and two assists. For Temple, in the final game for Owls’ coach Fran Dunphy, Shizz Alston Jr. had 21 points and five assists.
While McClain put forth an incredible performance, another Belmont player stepped up in a big way.
Nick Muszynski might only be a freshman, but he is instrumental to Belmont’s success. The Bruins lost the OVC tournament title game to Murray State while the 6-foot-11 big man was nursing a left foot injury.
The Pickerington, Ohio native made his triumphant return in this game, and although he seemed a bit hobbled at times, he made a big impact.
Winner of the OVC Freshman of the Year award, Muszynski racked up 16 points, four rebounds, three assists, two blocks and a steal.
During Belmont’s crucial second half run, Muszynski tallied a steal, a rebound, a block, an assist and four points to help Belmont re-take the lead.
The offensive output from Muszynski and McClain was incredibly important for Belmont because the Bruins' leading scorer, Dylan Windler, struggled to put the ball in the hoop. Windler averages 21.4 points per-game this season, the 27th-best mark in the country, but on Tuesday scored just five points on 2-of-7 shooting. Windler did, however, pull in a team-high 14 rebounds.
Solid shooting, defense from Bruins
Aside from the individual performances of McClain and Muszynski, Belmont excelled as a team on both ends of the floor.
On offense, Belmont is one of the best shooting teams in the country, and they proved that again Tuesday night, knocking 52.8 percent of shots from the floor and 39.1 percent from three-point range. Four different Bruins swished three-pointers.
Belmont entered the NCAA tournament with the country’s fifth-best field goal percentage, the fifth-best offensive rating, the second-best points per-game average, the seventh-best in assist percentage and the fourth-best effective field goal percentage. Per KenPom, the Bruins have the 20th-most efficient offense in the country.
But Belmont was also very good on defense Tuesday night. They held Temple to 31.8 percent shooting from three-point land and forced the Owls into 11 turnovers. Coming into the tournament, only nine other NCAA tournament teams had turned the ball over less than the Owls.
Terps on deck
Next up for the Belmont Bruins is a meeting with the sixth-seeded Maryland Terrapins in Jacksonville, Florida.
The Terps won 22 games this year and finished fifth in the Big Ten, but have lost three of their last four games.
When it comes to defending the three-pointer, the Terps are a little above average, allowing opponents to shoot 31.9 percent behind the arc, the 57th-best mark in the country. When it comes to defending all shots from the floor, the Terps are better, allowing opponents to knock down 39.7 percent of all shots.
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This is Mark Turgeon’s eighth season at Maryland. In his previous seven seasons at the helm, he’s only guided the Terps out of the first weekend once.
Because of Belmont’s prowess on offense, the Bruins could be a trendy upset pick.
To pull that off, Byrd will need Muszynski, McClain and the rest of his team to click like they did on Tuesday.
Mitchell Northam is a graduate of Salisbury University. His work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Orlando Sentinel, SB Nation, FanSided, USA Today and the Delmarva Daily Times. He grew up on Maryland's Eastern Shore and is now based in Durham, N.C.