Belmont looks to make NCAA tournament history

NCAA Tournament COVID Impact Basketball
Posted at 10:02 PM, Mar 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-18 23:09:47-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Belmont is dancing once again. For the fifth time in six years, the Bruins earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament by winning the OVC Tournament championship in Evansville earlier this month.

Belmont was selected as the No. 12 seed in the Mercado Region in this year’s San Antonio-based tourney and will take on No. 5 seed Gonzaga out of the West Coast Conference Monday at 3 p.m.

“You never take it for granted,” head coach Bart Brooks said after Monday’s Selection Show. “We are extremely, extremely excited that we’re back in this position.”

It’s a familiar position for the Bruins, but the journey to get to the tournament this year was much different than this program, or just about any program, had experienced before.

After losing to Auburn on December 20, the team left to celebrate Christmas with their families. Upon their return to campus, they were greeted by positive COVID-19 tests, contact tracing and quarantines. The program was shut down for more than three weeks, leaving players and coaches wondering if the season could be salvaged.

“We were wondering if we were even going to be able to play enough conference games to make it to our conference tournament,” said guard Maddie Cook. “It was difficult, physically, mentally.”

Belmont finally returned to action on January 19 against Murray State. That was the first of 19 games the Bruins would have to play over six weeks in order to finish the season.

Amazingly, despite almost no on-court practice time, the Bruins somehow managed to put it all together in time to win their final 10 games, including three straight at the OVC Tournament to cut down the nets once again.

“I’m in awe of how much they’ve done to overcome everything that’s been thrown in their path,” Brooks said. “It’s been a heck of a journey. I’m just thrilled that we get a chance to keep playing basketball.”

Now Belmont hopes to make it an even more memorable season by pulling off the 12 over five upset of Gonzaga in Monday’s first-round game.

“To go through what they went through, to come out the other end of it. To get stronger and become more connected as the year went. To find a rhythm here down the stretch (and) to have our team playing its best basketball of the year right now at this moment,” Brooks said. “I think a lot of things are falling into place for us.”

A victory would mark the first-ever NCAA Tournament win for Belmont women’s basketball, joining the men’s program which accomplished the feat in 2019. It’s a breakthrough that’s important for any burgeoning program, and one that a Belmont program that’s dominated the mid-major ranks in recent years is anxiously awaiting.

“It’s the reason why I’m here, and why our players are here,” Brooks said.