- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2008

What had been a mostly uneventful opening day of the NCAA tournament, free of much drama or surprise, was ready to become unglued last night at Verizon Center as Belmont’s Justin Hare launched a shot from about 35 feet away with time running out.

Seeded 15th in the West Region, Belmont trailed second-seeded Duke by one point. Only four times since the tournament field expanded to 64 teams in 1985 had a No. 15 seed beaten a No. 2 seed.

Hare, a senior guard, took an inbounds pass after a missed free throw and a timeout, drove down the sideline and let it fly. The shot struck the rim and bounced off, preserving a 71-70 Duke victory.

“It’s a heartbreaker,” said Belmont guard Alex Renfroe, who scored 11 of his 15 points in the second half. “I’m not going to lie. It’s a heartbreaker.”

Said Belmont coach Rick Byrd: “To put forth that kind of effort, to be so close, so very close to getting a huge win for our school and then have to go in and talk to a bunch of kids who are crying and lost the game … it’s almost an unfairness that the outcome doesn’t measure how proud I am of this team and how hard they played and how well they played.”

With most of the Verizon crowd screaming for the Bruins, Belmont fell behind by 10 early in the second half but clawed back, taking a 70-69 lead on a pair of free throws by Hare with 2:02 remaining.

The three-time defending Atlantic Sun Conference champions never were awed by their opponents, although Byrd described Duke as the “premier program of the last 20 years.”

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski reciprocated Byrd’s praise.

“We played against a team that played an amazing game,” said Krzyzewski, whose teams have won three national championships. “We were ready to play. You won’t hear any of our players say we overlooked them. Watching them on tape, they looked really good. Watching them in person they’re even better.”

With their experienced guards Greg Paulus and DeMarcus Nelson shooting a combined 4-for-16, the Blue Devils (28-5) turned to guard Gerald Henderson down the stretch. Each team wasted scoring opportunities after Belmont went ahead until Henderson, who finished with a game-high 21 points, grabbed a rebound and drove the length of the court to put the Blue Devils ahead 71-70 with 11.9 seconds to go.

Still, Belmont remained confident. The Bruins knew they shared a similar makeup to Duke. Neither squad has much size, and both rely on 3-pointers. In the first half, which ended with Duke ahead by seven, Belmont carved up the Blue Devils’ defense with backdoor plays. In the second half, they turned Renfroe loose.

“I was thinking we could compete with them before we got here,” Renfroe said. “We just believe in ourselves and believe in our teammates and believe in our coaches. It starts back at school even before we leave for the game.”

Hare drove and missed, but a scramble for the rebound resulted in a held ball, with the Bruins keeping possession. Then the fateful play: Under the Duke basket, Renfroe, with four seconds left, threw away the inbounds pass intended for Shane Dansby. It went instead to Nelson, who was fouled with 2.7 seconds left. He missed, giving Belmont one last shot.

But not the shot it wanted.

“We’ll be remembered as a team that almost did it,” Renfroe said. “And that’s hard to go out that way.”

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