Belmont guard Kerron Johnson, center, celebrates with teammates after making the game-winning basket in overtime to beat Murray State 70-68 in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament championship on Saturday.


The greatest win in Belmont history was a loss.

In the 2008 NCAA tournament, the No. 15 seed Bruins led the No. 2 Duke Blue Devils by one with 2:02 to play.

In the first round, the Blue Devils teetered on the precipice of the largest upset in Big Dance history.

The Arizona Wildcats were there, having played West Virginia at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., that day. So was Sean Miller, whose Xavier Musketeers beat Georgia.

The Bruins led by one until Duke's Gerald Henderson made a layup with with 11.9 seconds left, quieting the throng that thought it was witnessing history. The Blue Devils won 71-70.

"We became the crowd favorite that night," Belmont coach Rick Byrd said Sunday. "There was a lot of discussion that night about that game.

"It still remains the most prominent national moment in our basketball history, even though it was a loss."

The Bruins (26-6) have a chance to fix that Thursday, when, as the No. 11 seed, they play the No. 6 Arizona Wildcats in the NCAA tournament.

Belmont, in Nashville, won this year's Ohio Valley Conference tournament to reach its highest-ever NCAA tournament seed.

It's the Bruins' sixth Big Dance appearance since 2006, including a loss to Wisconsin at McKale Center two years ago. The school has never won in the tournament, though the near miss against Duke counted for something.

"To be in that spot against the best coach and program of our generation, and almost pulling it off," Byrd said. "You can't just go on result alone. That was as gutty and good a performance as Belmont's had."

Ian Clark, Belmont's leading scorer this season, watched the game on television with his parents as a junior in high school.

"It definitely was an eye-opener," the senior, who averages 18.1 points, said Sunday. "And seeing the way they played and the excitement going on in that game.

"Everyone knows who Duke is.

"To have a mid-major that was recruiting me contend with them, it was a great feeling."

When they lost to Duke, the Bruins had participated in three-straight NCAA tournaments.

"I don't think we recruit those guys (playing today) if we didn't make the tournament," he said.

That momentum has followed Belmont, which, as recently as 1996 played in the NAIA, and this year jumped to the OVC after 11 years in the Atlantic Sun.

"We've been able to recruit better players with the successes that we've had," Byrd said. "We really haven't changed the profile of our players. We've been able to recruit guys that can do a little more than when we first started in Division I.…

"If we're recruited against people in the OVC or the A-Sun or the Big South or the Southern Conference, we feel pretty good about our success compared to anybody there.

"If we start recruiting against Butler or Creighton for somebody, or the next level up, they can show two or three or four teams from their league going to the NCAA tournament - and we can show one.

"We've been climbing that recruiting ladder."

Along the way, the Bruins have developed a reputation.

"They're not a good team - they're a great program," UA coach Sean Miller said. "And we have the ultimate respect for them."

Miller called Byrd "one of the great coaches in college basketball."

The two have faced each other once - in 2008, when Xavier beat Belmont by 41.

Byrd joked he'd be happy to whittle the difference down this time around.

"I'll try to get Sean to a little bit less than that," he said.

Contact reporter Patrick Finley at or 573-4145. On Twitter @PatrickFinley