DAYTON, Ohio — When he woke up Sunday Belmont star Dylan Windler didn’t feel good about his team’s chances of making the Big Dance. But that night Belmont received its first ever at-large bid, and Tuesday Windler and his teammates capped off a whirlwind 48 hours by beating Temple 81-70 for the first NCAA Tournament win in school history.
It’s a storybook ending, regardless of what happens from here, for the Belmont senior and All-OVC first team selection.
“Its a dream come true,” Windler said at his locker after the game. “We just hope to keep it rolling. The more games we win it will be even more fun.”
Belmont was previously 0-7 in its trips to Bracketville, but it got it done Tuesday behind a sensational effort from Kevin McClain. The senior guard led the way with 29 points as the Bruins thwarted Temple’s second half rally.
“That just means we belong in this tournament,” McClain said. “That’s tonight, you can see that.”
McClain had to step up because Windler, who averages more than 20 points per game, was held to just five points in the game.
But McClain did have some help. OVC Freshman of the Year Nick Muszynski returned from injury to score 16 points. After missing the Bruins’s loss in the OVC title game due to a sprained ankle, the 6’10 forward was chomping at the bit to get on the court and help his team.
“Once that ball tipped I didn’t feel a thing. I just wanted to go,” Muszynski said. “So there was never a doubt in my mind. I didn’t like the Murray State game the way I didn’t get to play and I think we all just wanted to get that bad taste out of our mouth. And the fact we got the chance to do it, I think we made the most of it.”
The win is also the first NCAA tournament victory for Belmont Head Coach Rick Byrd. After 43 seasons in coaching, it was win number 805 in his career that, at least for now, will go down as the biggest.
“It means an awful lot for our school, for Belmont University, and the commitment they made to go Division One 20 years ago,” Byrd said. “(It means a lot) for the commitment they made to the basketball program, for the athletic program, and it means a whole heckuva lot to those guys in there.”
That’s especially true for the seniors like Windler and McClain. Every four-year Belmont player that has entered the program since 2003 has played in at least one NCAA Tournament game. It took an at-large bid for this year’s seniors to continue that streak.
But the Bruins made their first trip to the Big Dance since 2015 count, and validated the selection committee’s decision in the process.
“Just 48 hours ago we didn’t know if we were going to be in this,” Byrd said. “And I didn’t know if these two seniors were ever going to get to play in the NCAA Tournament. And now they got Belmont’s first win. So it’s a big night for us.”
A big night in the middle of a wild few days that continued early Wednesday morning as the Bruins boarded a 2 a.m. flight for Jacksonville.
There will be another team to cram for in short order, another practice, and another mandatory NCAA media session ahead of a Thursday afternoon game against no. 6 seed Maryland.
But that’s just fine with Windler and the Bruins.
They weren’t sure they would get this opportunity. But now that they’re here, they’re making the most of it.
“We’re the Cinderella from here on out,” Windler said. “We’re happy to be here and we’re going to leave it all on the floor.”