First Four: Belmont throttles Temple to advance in NCAA Tournament

Belmont coach Rick Byrd was fully prepared to be happy for Fran Dunphy had Temple come out with the win against his Bruins on Tuesday night.

Instead, Byrd ended up sending the 70-year-old coach off into his planned retirement, while the Bruins finally earned a chance to keep dancing.

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Belmont beat Temple 81-70 in the First Four on Tuesday night at UD Arena to claim the program’s first NCAA Tournament victory and advance to a first-round game against sixth-seeded Maryland (22-10) on Thursday in Jacksonville. Byrd, who has coached the Bruins since 1986, had been a part of all seven previous attempts that ended in losses.

“This is an historic night for Belmont University and our basketball program,” Byrd said after an introductory statement praising Dunphy as one of the best in the business. “Just 48 hours ago we didn’t know if we were going to be in this, and I didn’t know if these two seniors (Dylan Windler and Kevin McClain) were ever going to get to play in the NCAA Tournament. And now they’ve got Belmont’s first win. So it’s a big night for us, and we’re happy.”

Byrd said the game will miss Dunphy, though.

Dunphy, of course, was hoping to extend his time on the sidelines a little longer as the Owls were seeking their first tournament victory since 2013 when they beat North Carolina State in the first round at Dayton.

A mainstay in the Philadelphia college basketball scene for decades, Dunphy teaches an honors course in the school of business in the fall and will remain a professor at Temple but said it hasn’t quite hit him yet that he won’t be coaching any longer. Dunphy is 21st in total wins among active Division I coaches, finishing with 557 in 31 total years as a head coach. He was the University of Pennsylvania’s coach from 1989 to 2006, when he replaced John Chaney as the Owls head coach.

“I’m just disappointed for the guys that we’re not able to continue on and go to Jacksonville and play against a team like the University of Maryland,” Dunphy said. “And give a lot of credit to Belmont. They’re a good team. Rick does a great job of coaching them. … I will reflect in the coming days. And again I’m very appreciative of what Temple University gave to me, what the University of Pennsylvania gave to me. And I’m a pretty fortunate guy.”

It was evident early on Temple was going to have to do something pretty special to beat the Bruins. Belmont had a lead for almost three-fourths of the game, including a 37-31 advantage that quickly became an 11-point lead in the second half.

Temple used a 10-0 run to shift the momentum in its favor for a five-point lead with 11:24 left, but couldn’t keep it long as the Bruins came on strong over the final eight minutes to put the game away. The Owls seemed to fold as the deficit grew back to double digits late and shots that were falling earlier rattled off the rim or fell short.

Kevin McClain finished with 29 points to lead Belmont, and 6-foot-11 center Nick Muszynski played a solid game against an equally big Temple front court, adding 16 points. Temple’s Shizz Alston finished with 21 points, Nate Pierre-Louis had 13 and Quinton Rose and J.P. Moorman chipped in 10.

“I thought we forced a couple of things,” Dunphy said. “We had some decent opportunities. That one stretch in the second half we probably can’t play any better than we did. We got some good baskets off of transition. I thought our defense was really solid in that same part of it. But I think toward the end of the game we just — we didn’t — weren’t as efficient, weren’t as sharp, weren’t as crisp as we needed to be.”

Byrd didn’t feel like the Bruins were as sharp offensively as they could have been – they are one of the top scoring offenses in the country while averaging 84.7 points per game – but the most important thing is Belmont found a way to get it done and close out the win.

The chance to move on is more important for his players than anything personal, but he will enjoy it just the same.

“I get the question a lot, what’s the missing piece?” Byrd said. “The missing piece is: ‘You all haven’t won a game in the NCAA Tournament.’ I don’t really care about the personal part. If we would have lost this game, I would have been proud of what we’ve accomplished. But I don’t have to answer that question anymore.”

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