NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — With the game on the line on Belmont’s senior night, the ball found its way into Ben Sheppard’s hands. And what happened next was the type of finish that a player can only dream of.
Sheppard was fouled by Indiana State’s Jayson Kent and sent to the line for a one-and-one with the Bruins trailing by one and just :02.5 left on the clock.
“Every time he shoots it I think he’s going to make it,” Belmont guard E.J. Bellinger said. “So I was happy it was him taking those shots.”
As he has done so many times in his Belmont career, Sheppard played the role of late-game hero. He sank both free throws to cap a furious Belmont rally from 19 points down to win the game. He was then swarmed by teammates and fans on the floor in what felt like a storybook ending to his final game in the arena he’s called home for the last four seasons.
“Senior night. A lot of memories in the Curb (Events Center). It was just fun to do it the way that we did,” Sheppard said. “Those were my last two shots in the Curb and I couldn’t have thought of anything better.”
The clutch free throws are the latest addition on Sheppard’s growing resume of big shots that includes the game-tying three-pointers against Tennessee Tech last season and Middle Tennessee this season.
Then in January Sheppard turned heads around the Missouri Valley Conference by making a tough runner in traffic with just :02.3 left at Bradley to help Belmont snap the nation’s third-longest homecourt winning streak.
“At the end of the game I definitely want to be able to make an impact for my team,” Sheppard said. “Something about me is that I never get too high or too low and I’m confident enough that I’m going to be able to make that play.”
Sheppard’s the biggest reason why Belmont - which was picked 6th preseason - sits in third place in its first season in the Missouri Valley Conference and in position to earn a bye in the conference tournament.
“We’ve ridden his back all year long,” Belmont head coach Casey Alexander said. “And that’s what’s been so impressive as I look at it is the weight that he’s had to carry and how he has done so.”
The 6’6 senior guard from Atlanta has drawn the attention from NBA scouts because of his all-around game. Sheppard leads Belmont in scoring, rebounding and steals while drawing the defensive assignment on the opponent’s best perimeter player every night.
His 19.3 points per game rank second in the Missouri Valley Conference, and he ranks among the league’s top 20 in 18 other statistical categories. It’s that production that makes him one of the favorites for the league’s Larry Bird Player of the Year Award.
“I might be a little bit biased, but I think he’s that good,” Bellinger said. “I don’t think there’s many people in the country that are as good as him, if any at all. I’ve been good friends with him for four years and he still does things that shock me. It’s been fun to see how he’s progressed.”
Player of the Year awards often go to the best player on a championship team, but Alexander believes it’s been clear this season in the Valley that no player means more to his team than Sheppard has to Belmont.
“Another way to look at it would be if you took one player off each team and see who would be impacted the most, and I would think it would be us if we lost Ben,” Alexander said. “He’s been so steady. He’s been so impactful. He’s done it on both ends of the floor. If you look at his total package he has been rock solid from beginning to end.”
And no one has hit more big shots than Sheppard.
Now as his Belmont career winds down Sheppard hopes the true storybook ending will come with a march to a Missouri Valley Conference championship at the conference tournament next week in St. Louis.
“The (NCAA) Tournament, March Madness,” Sheppard said with a big smile. “Freshman year it was taken away from us. We were super excited (then) and haven’t had the opportunity since then. So, yeah, just going out and playing our hardest and I think if we can get hot then we have a good chance of making a run in St. Louis.