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Mike Lopresti | | November 27, 2015

Battle of the Boulevard hits close to home for coaches

  Belmont-Lipscomb is the closest rivalry in DI, edging out Cincinnati-Xavier and Houston-Rice.

Come next Tuesday, the Lipscomb Bisons will turn north on Belmont Boulevard in Nashville and go play at their traditional neighborhood foe. Belmont, two miles away.

"Right around the corner," Lipscomb junior J.C. Hampton said.

Six days after that, the Belmont Bruins will turn south on the same street and go play at their traditional neighborhood foe. Lipscomb, two miles away.

"I don’t even know why we take a bus," Belmont senior Craig Bradshaw said.

And so will be renewed the Battle of the Boulevard, Belmont vs. Lipscomb, quite possibly the best college basketball neighborhood brawl the bright lights seldom find. Also winner of the Right-Next-Door Award for being the closest rivals in Division I, edging Cincinnati-Xavier, and Houston-Rice.

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Duke and North Carolina? They’re light years apart compared to these two. Eight miles. Lipscomb and Belmont are on the same street, and nearly in the same zip code.

How close is that?

"I can walk to their gym from my house," Belmont coach Rick Byrd said, "faster than I can to our gym."

How close?

Lipscomb coach Casey Alexander’s daily jogging path from his office goes around the Belmont campus. The thing is, he once was a player and an assistant for Byrd at Belmont. "So now I just run the other direction," he said.

How close?

Byrd and Alexander meet regularly for coffee. "This is the toughest time for us," Alexander said of the coming week, when they play twice. "Our conversations are a little more vanilla, for natural reasons."

The neighbors have been going at it since 1953 – Lipscomb leading the series 73-63 -- and for several decades were competing NAIA powers. Take 1989, when Belmont won 105-98 with a trip to the NAIA national tournament at stake. That after losing to Lipscomb earlier in the year 118-99, 109-99 and 105-98.

Or 1990, when they played SIX times, including before 16,000 in the Vanderbilt gymnasium; the largest crowd in the history of NAIA basketball. Lipscomb won that one 124-117. Nobody held the ball back then.

"It’s our Duke-North Carolina, our Alabama-Auburn, our Yankee-Red Sox," Byrd said. "But it’s changed some over the years."

By the 21st century, they had both moved into Division I. Five of their first 10 meetings in the Division I era needed overtime. They also both joined the Atlantic Sun conference, which created the mother of all Battles of the Boulevard: The conference tournament championship game in 2006, with each team trying to earn its first NCAA Tournament bid in history.

Belmont won 74-69. In overtime, of course. Belmont has since moved to the Ohio Valley Conference, and gone to the NCAA Tournament seven times, as Byrd has built a mid-major power. Lipscomb is still waiting for its first bid, and has lost seven consecutive Belmont games. So the state of the rivalry?

"It isn’t very good right now," Alexander said. "We have a lot of ground to make up."

The 2006 game – which Belmont teetered on losing before pulling even in the last 21 seconds of regulation -- was the moment their fortunes parted. Byrd still remembers the tension of the occasion.

"If our biggest rival had beaten us to get there [the NCAA Tournament] first, it would have been unbearable. Who knows what would have happened if that had been the case? I often wonder where each program might have gone from there if that had turned out different.

"I felt all of that then. I haven’t sat and waited on a game to start with more anxiety ever in my life than that game."

So said the man with 715 career victories.

The dynamics have changed since. The Lipscomb staff has a distinct Belmont flavor. Alexander, in his third season as Lipscomb coach, was a four-year player and 15-year assistant for Byrd. Associate head coach Roger Idstrom was a Belmont assistant. Another Lipscomb assistant, Steve Drabyn, was a star player for Byrd at Belmont.

Alexander had to get rid of his Belmont gear. "My wife and kids held on to theirs, but even they have moved on."

How about, say, Drabyn? Any red or blue Belmont T-shirts still in his closet? "No comment," Drabyn said. But he has lots of purple now.

"As far as the players and coaches are concerned, it’s probably taken some of the bitterness out of it," Alexander said. "Belmont was an important place to me. I played there, I met my wife there, I spent 20 years there. So I’m never going to pull against Belmont. But I want to beat them as bad as I want to beat anybody on our schedule, and Coach Byrd feels the same way. I fully recognize that I have an incredible responsibility to Lipscomb to make our team as good as it can possibly be and to represent Lipscomb as well as I can to win as many games as I can, and that includes against Belmont or anybody else."

Said Drabyn, "We try to help each other out, except for two times a year."

And Byrd, "I think it changes things for me personally because I think so much of Casey. He’s a former player, but he’s also a friend. It’s very easy for me to be for Lipscomb now, except for twice a year, when in the past I wasn’t for them because it’s a natural rivalry."

Plus, Byrd said the intensity has faded a bit since the two schools went their separate ways in conferences. They are no longer in each other’s way in March.

But the players still feel the necessity of beating the guys just down the street.

"It goes for every sport," Bradshaw said. "When I got here, [university] President Fisher said, 'Craig, there’s one thing we don’t do. We don’t lose to Lipscomb.'"

Bradshaw never has. "You want to finish it off, get two more and not have to worry about those games. It’s a tough game for everybody. You want to beat those guys bad, but at the same time, you like most of them."

Meanwhile, Hampton has seen the bleaker side of it at Lipscomb.

"It’s nothing like, 'We hate you guys.' But on the court, it’s a different standard. I haven’t had a win against Belmont. This year, I need to get a win. Actually two."

For the record, Belmont was 4-2 through Thanksgiving, Lipscomb 3-4. It’ll be a long ride home for the loser next week. Well, not that long.

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