EDWARDSVILLE — Southern Illinois University Edwardsville's interior defense took a vacation Wednesday night.
Belmont scored 55 points in the paint and ran away for a 94-75 victory over the Cougars in an Ohio Valley Conference game before 1,644 at Vadalabene Center.
Senior J.J. Mann scored 19 of his 25 points in the first half to spark the Bruins, who improved to 22-8 overall and 13-2 in the OVC with their fifth straight win. Freshman Evan Bradds had 20 points and junior Reece Chamberlain had 19 points and nine assists.
Bradds and Chamberlain were a combined 16-for-18 from the field as Belmont handed the Cougars their first home loss since Jan. 2.
"I didn't think it was just our interior defense (that struggled). I thought it was our whole entire defense," said coach Lennox Forrester, whose team fell to 11-18 and 7-8.
"But Belmont is a very, very good team," he said. "That's why they're in position to probably win another regular-season title in the OVC. That's why they went to North Carolina and beat North Carolina. They're well-coached, they've got good basketball players and they're very fundamentally sound."
Belmont, which held a double-digit lead for the final 26 minutes, 33 seconds, shot 57 percent from the floor (35-for-62), outrebounded SIUE 38-25, scored 21 second-chance points and dished out 20 assists.
"It was a good win for us, for sure," Bruins coach Rick Byrd said. "We're not a team that really posts people up a whole lot and scores, so it was a lot of penetration and dump-offs to guys to finish. It wasn't necessarily post scoring as much as penetration."
Senior Tim Johnson led SIUE with 18 points in a reserve role. Sophomore Donivine Stewart scored 17 points, junior Keaton Jackson had 11 points and seven rebounds and junior Rozell Nunn contributed 10 points.
The Cougars, who never led, shot 49 percent (28-for-57). But that wasn't enough to overcome the defensive breakdowns that regularly led to easy baskets in the lane by Belmont.
"I didn't think we gave them our best shot, partly because of how they play," Forrester said. "They took us out of our rhythm offensively, and any time we made mistakes defensively, they burned us. That's a sign of a really good team. ... They outcompeted us tonight. I didn't think we did a great job competing."
Byrd said the Bruins were aware that SIUE had won five consecutive home games.
"Lennox has done a terrific job with this program," Byrd said. "They are the most improved team in the league, in my opinion. They've beaten really good teams in here. This was a really big game for us and I was completely and honestly scared to death of it because they're good. They didn't have a great game tonight, but they'll have to be reckoned with next week in Nashville."
The OVC Tournament begins Wednesday at Municipal Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn. The Cougars have qualified for the tournament for the first time in program history.
Belmont led 48-32 at halftime as Mann sparked the attack with three 3-pointers. The half ended when freshman Nick Smith stole the ball from Nunn under the Bruins basket and scored as time expired.
SIUE used an 8-2 run to start the second half to get within 50-40. Belmont quickly called timeout, then regrouped with an 8-2 surge of its own to move back ahead by 16 at 58-42 at the 14:28 mark. Bradds had a dunk, a rebound basket and a layup in the drive.
The Cougars were no closer than 13 the rest of the game.
"It's been a pattern too much for us," Byrd said of his team's sluggish start to the second half. "We've had a bunch of around 20-point halftime leads in the league this year. ... I wanted to call (the timeout) quick. I didn't want it to get out of hand."