They’re only a No. 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but the Belmont Bruins have long ago moved past the happy-to-be-here stage.
After a convincing win on March 6 in the Ohio Valley Conference championship game, Belmont coach Bart Brooks told his players and everyone else that “this team hasn’t peaked yet.”
If that’s the case, the Gonzaga women will have a tough fight in their first-round NCAA game Monday afternoon in San Marcos, Texas.
Fifth-seeded Gonzaga is 23-3 and should be favored to advance to a second-round game against Indiana or Virginia Commonwealth.
The Bruins (20-5), however, are one of the hottest teams in the country with 10 consecutive wins and 14 in their past 15. They’re also no stranger to the NCAAs, having qualified five out of the past six years.
“For us there’s no question, we’re absolutely in the best place we’ve been as a team,” Brooks said on Selection Monday.
“Just the function of playing together and having everyone together and healthy for the last two or three weeks has been huge,” said Brooks, now in his fourth year. “Our team has made incredible strides just in that stretch.”
Like many teams, Belmont coped with the usual distractions related to COVID-19, including canceled and postponed games.
The team had nine game postponements and two game cancellations in navigating the COVID-19 pandemic this year.
The Bruins defeated Auburn and Conference USA champion Middle Tennessee in the nonconference portion of the season.
They finished two games behind UT-Martin in the regular season, then got on a hot streak.
Most of that success has been fueled by defense.
“We’ve done a good job on defense; we’ve found our defensive identity,” Belmont junior guard Maddie Cook said. “I don’t think it’s been anything about our strategy. It’s been our hustle and our individual players. We take pride in our defense in our matchups.”
The Bruins also take pride in their ability to take the ball away. Belmont ranks 16th in Division I in steals with an average of almost 11 per game.
Bulldogs senior guard Cierra Walker already knew that.
“Just like with any team, we know that we have to take care of the ball,” Walker said Wednesday from San Marcos.
“Every possession does matter, and our mindset is that we have to value the basketball.”
At the other end of the court, the Bruins are 15th best in the nation in 3-point field goals made per game (8.7), but they rank only 57th in 3-point accuracy at 34.7%
Unlike the Zags, Belmont has no dominant seniors.
Freshman guard Destinee Wells is only 5-foot-6 but has made a huge impact that has only grown through the season.
Wells averages 17.6 points, shoots 40% from long range and has 106 assists and 48 steals. She’s also coming off a 32-point performance in the OVC title game.
Conley Chinn, a 6-1 junior forward, is the only other Bruins player scoring in double figures (12.5 ppg). Chinn’s 4.9 rebounds per game lead a squad that is among the most balanced in the nation on the glass.
The Bruins have posted six consecutive 20-win seasons and are 109-9 in their past 118 OVC games.
The programs have met once, in the Play 4 Kay tournament in Las Vegas in November 2017. The Bruins won 71-63.
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