DAYTON, Ohio — Belmont Coach Rick Byrd cheered, of course, Sunday evening when he learned his team had been granted an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament. But then inwardly — just for a moment — he groaned.
“I had taped the Players Championship to watch Sunday night,” he said, laughing, not long before tip-off here Tuesday. “I’m a big Rory [McIlroy] fan. I was looking forward to watching him win. Then, when we got in and sent to Dayton, there was no time. We had to start getting ready for Temple.”
Byrd, who would just as soon talk golf most days as basketball, is going to have to wait a while longer before he gets to watch McIlroy’s victory. His team made school history Tuesday, beating Temple, 81-70, to advance to a first-round game against sixth-seeded Maryland on Thursday in Jacksonville, Fla.
It was after midnight before Byrd and his players got on their bus to catch a charter flight after their victory here. That meant the Bruins wouldn’t get to their hotel until about 5 o’clock in the morning.
“I hope we have a late practice,” he said. “We’re going to need to get some sleep and some rest.”
Byrd wasn’t complaining. After the Bruins lost the Ohio Valley Conference championship game to Murray State a week ago Saturday, many declared them headed for the NIT.
“We knew we had a good team,” said senior guard Kevin McClain, who scored 29 points against Temple. “All we wanted was the chance to prove it.”
They got the chance, at least in part, because the bubble was so weak. The committee still managed to sneak in Oklahoma, St. John’s and Ohio State — all of which finished below .500 in their conferences. But they found a place in their hearts for a Belmont team that had won 26 games and lost the conference championship game without starting center Nick Muszynski, who was out with a sprained ankle.
Muszynski was back Tuesday, and he made 8 of 12 shots, scored 16 points and pulled down four rebounds in Belmont’s victory. The Bruins shot 28 for 53 from the field, pulling away late for the program’s first NCAA tournament victory.
Byrd, 65, has coached at Belmont for 33 seasons, taking the school from playing in the NAIA when he arrived to 713 victories and eight NCAA tournament appearances. Belmont was 0-7 in the tournament before Tuesday, the closest call coming in 2008 when it lost to Duke, 71-70.
“I guess for a long time the missing piece was getting an NCAA tournament win,” Byrd said as midnight approached Tuesday. “Now that’s a question that won’t come up anymore.”
Needless to say, Byrd would love to double his tournament win total Thursday afternoon.
“Forty-eight hours ago we didn’t even know if we were going to get to play,” Byrd said. “Now we’ve got a win and the chance to play Maryland. A lot to do in a short time, but we’re glad to do it.”
Byrd on Sunday night assigned one of his assistants, Brian Ayers, to begin looking at tape of the Terrapins, but the head coach admitted Tuesday that he didn’t know much about Maryland. “I know they have a lot of size and they’re the kind of team that gives us trouble because of that,” he said. “They’re young, I also know that. Beyond that, I really haven’t seen much of them.” He smiled. “I’ll see a lot of them in the next couple of days.”
As Temple found out the hard way, Belmont is a team that can beat you both inside and outside, although it’s difficult to believe Muszynski will be able to control the low post against Bruno Fernando the way he did against Temple’s inside players. The Bruins will have to make three-point shots to have a chance. Their best outside threat is McClain, although their leading scorer and best player is fellow senior Dylan Windler, who averages 20.8 points and 10.8 rebounds.
Windler was held to five points on Tuesday by Temple’s Nate Pierre-Louis but grabbed 14 rebounds.
“Shows you what kind of player he is,” Temple Coach Fran Dunphy said. “Nate did a great job shutting down his offense, and he still got 14 rebounds. Shows you the kind of team they are — they find a way to beat you.”
Maryland certainly will be the more rested team, and the Terrapins, as Byrd pointed out, might make life miserable inside for the Bruins. But they would be well advised not to get off to one of their sluggish starts or to take this team lightly. Belmont is experienced — except at point guard, where freshman Grayson Murphy is the starter — and confident, especially now that the NCAA drought is over.
“This was something we really wanted, not just for ourselves but for Coach Byrd,” Windler said. “We know what this means to our school.”
Belmont will be playing, then, with house money. Few people expected the Bruins to be in the tournament, and now they have that historic first win under their belts. Whether that produces a team that is loose and hot from outside or one that feels fatigue and relief from Tuesday’s victory is difficult to know.
As he headed up the steep ramp leading from the locker rooms inside University of Dayton Arena to his team’s bus, Byrd encountered Dunphy, who was surrounded by a posse of reporters asking how he felt to have coached his final game at Temple.
The two men shook hands and exchanged an embrace. “Enjoy Jacksonville,” Dunphy said, knowing that Belmont would be flying on a charter flight that would have carried his team had it won.
“Great season,” Byrd answered.
He started up the ramp, knowing it will be a while before he gets to watch the McIlroy tape. Then he had a thought.
“The TPC Sawgrass [where the Players is held] isn’t far from Jacksonville,” he said. “Maybe I’ll get to play the course. Just not quite yet.”
Not Wednesday, certainly not Thursday, and he hopes not Friday. There’s work still to be done. The longer it lasts, the better.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.