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Belmont looks for big upset

Fri., March 16, 2012, midnight

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Belmont coach Rick Byrd remembers his players’ wide-eyed looks, their innocent expressions, their sense of awe.

Six years ago, the Bruins were NCAA tournament rookies.

Strangers in a strange land.

“You say all the right things, but your mentality is really like your first time at Disney World,” Byrd said Thursday. “You’re looking around and you don’t know what to expect, and you are pretty much just happy to be there.”

Those days are long gone. The Bruins now know their way around March’s amusement park.

In today’s opening round of the Midwest Regional No. 14 seed Belmont (27-7), once an unknown small-school curiosity, will make its fifth tournament appearance in seven years. The Bruins, who lost their season opener by one point at Duke, will try to upset No. 3 seed Georgetown (23-8), a first-round knockout victim the past two years.

The Bruins haven’t slayed any giants yet in the NCAAs. But they’ve been close.

On March 20, 2008, Belmont had its one shining moment. The Bruins led Duke by a point before Gerald Henderson’s driving layup with 12 seconds left bailed out the Blue Devils. Belmont may have lost the game, but won hearts and respect.

“It did wonders for us in terms of recognition and in terms of belonging, and that was the third straight year in the NCAA tournament,” said Byrd, who has been at the Nashville, Tenn., school for 26 seasons. “Every high school player, every recruit wants to play in the NCAA tournament. We could at that point say, well, the odds are pretty good here. We’ve gone three straight years.”

The Bruins went 30-5 and made it again last year before losing in the first round to Wisconsin.

Senior guard Drew Hanlen said the Bruins began this season with three goals: to win the Atlantic Sun Conference regular-season title, the conference tournament and “multiple games in the NCAA tournament.”

“We’ve been waiting for this day since that Wisconsin loss last year,” said the 5-foot-11 Hanlen, who made 48 percent of his 3-point tries this season.

The Hoyas have anxiously anticipated this tournament, too, for a far different reason.

Georgetown’s past two NCAA trips have been brief.

As a No. 6 seed last season, the Hoyas were thumped 76-56 by Virginia Commonwealth, the Rams’ first win on their shocking run to the Final Four. It was a similar story for Georgetown in 2010, when the third-seeded Hoyas were stunned 97-87 by No. 13 seed Ohio.

Those losses are part of an inglorious history these Hoyas don’t want to add to.

“We all know what happened,” said senior guard Jason Clark, one of only three upperclassmen on Georgetown’s roster. “It’s definitely a motivator. Everybody has it in the back of their mind. We try not to focus on it. We know we didn’t do it in those games. So we want to learn from our mistakes, and that’s what we’ve been working all year for.”

Hoyas coach John Thompson III has encouraged his players to focus on the here and now. There’s nothing they can do to change what happened the past two years, so forget it.

It’s a new tournament and a new start.

“We’ve experienced the whole gamut from a Final Four and Sweet 16 to a couple early exits,” he said. “We’re not hiding from it. So we’ve made that clear also that this group is 0 and 0. So let’s go out and play.”

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