Southern Illinois University Edwardsville thought it did what it had to do knock the presumptive best Ohio Valley Conference team off its perch.
But even the hot hand of Keenan Simmons, who shot a torrid 10-of-12 from the field, couldn’t lift the Cougars over the hump against Belmont. The Bruins kept their all-time record against SIUE perfect with a 85-77 win at Vadalabene Center on Wednesday.
“We played with a different attitude in the second half,” said SIUE first-year coach Jon Harris. “The got us by 13 points in the first half, but we kind of turned the table on them in the second half. We’ve got to find a way to play with that mentality out of the gates.”
Belmont entered the season as league coaches preseason pick to win the OVC. SIUE was voted last.
But the Cougars forced the Bruins into 13 turnovers and were a near perfect 12-of-13 from the free throw line to keep themselves within a point as late as the 5:03 mark of the second half.
Belmont senior Craig Bradshaw, the OVC’s preseason pick for player of the year, scored 16 of his game-high 22 points in the second half to help the Bruins widen the lead.
“They’ve been the class of the league since they’ve joined, so you have to give credit where credit is do,” Harris said. “Their player made plays.”
SIUE, which fell to 3-12 and 0-3 in OVC play, has yet to defeat beat Belmont in four all-time meetings. The Bruins improved to 10-6 and 2-0.
Belmont opened a 42-29 lead with an 11-point run to close the first half. But the Cougars chipped away in the second half before six straight points by Simmons made it 53-50. He later scored his first 3-point basket of the season.
“Simmons was unbelievable,” said Belmont head coach Rick Byrd. “We thought we could help off of him because he didn’t hit 3s, but by doing that we left him some room to get to the basket and he hurt us.”
But Bradshaw drained two pro-range 3s and a long field goal from the corner, just inside the arc, to lead a 9-2 run late.
Bradshaw, who entered the game averaging 16 point per game, was held without a field goal through the game’s first 14 minutes. His 30-foot 3-pointer with 59 seconds left put the game out of reach for SIUE.
“That long 3 was big for us,” Byrd said. “It wasn’t the way we drew it up, but he’s got the range and he’s got the confidence.”
Simmons finished with 21 points and seven rebounds for the Cougars. He shot 10 of 11 from the field in the second half.
Yemi Makanjuola added 18 points to go with seven boards and Alton High School product Carlos Anderson scored 16.
For Belmont, Evan Bradds matched Bradshaw’s 22 points but also had 22 rebounds. Bradds is the grandson of former Ohio State All-American Gary Bradds.
The Cougars next travel to Tennessee State Saturday for a 7:30 p.m. OVC game. Belmont returns home to Nashville to face Eastern Illinois Saturday at 2 p.m.