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What makes the Battle of the Boulevard so special?

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NASHVILLE, TN – The last time that Belmont and Lipscomb played at Memorial Coliseum — the home of the Vanderbilt Commodores, a fellow Nashvillian institution of higher learning — they not only packed the house with 16,000 fans, they had to lock out ticket-holders in order to prevent the fire marshall from shutting down the game.

That was all the way back in 1990.

Now, Belmont and Lipscomb have a combined enrollment of about 9,000 students today. But 22 years ago, there were probably have as many enrolled students at the two universities. That fact alone goes to show you just how passionate these fan bases are that they were able to sell out Memorial Coliseum.

Now consider this: Belmont went Division I in 1997. Lipscomb followed suit a couple of years later in 2000.

Back in 1990, the two schools were members of the NAIA. Granted, they were both powerhouse programs competing for national titles year in and year out, but they were still NAIA schools.

Have you ever been to an NAIA game? Me neither. And more than 16,000 still showed up to see these two teams play.

That should give you an idea of what this rivalry is all about.

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What makes the intensity of this rivalry so unique is that both schools embody the lost philosophy of the student-athlete.

There are a couple of players that took the court at the Curb Center on Belmont’s campus on Friday night that may be able to play basketball professionally someday. There are a lot of leagues overseas, and there is a reason these kids were able to get their education paid for through hoops. They certainly aren’t bad basketball players.

But NBA scouts weren’t beating down the doors of the Curb Center trying to get one last credential for the game. John Calipari didn’t recruit any of these kids out of high school. The game wasn’t televised anywhere, let alone on ESPN.

In other words, even if one of the kids from Belmont or Lipscomb does play for pay when their collegiate career comes to a close, they won’t be making a life-changing amount of money. Eventually, they are all going to go pro in something other than sports.

“Its just two programs that are trying to do things the right way,” Lipscomb head coach Scott Sanderson said after the game. “A lot of times people cut corners trying to do a lot of stuff, trying to recruit good kids. Everyone here is going to graduate, which is very important to both of us.”

Belmont is a school with very strong music and arts programs, and being located a stone’s throw from downtown Nashville — the Music City — makes it difficult to get a casual fan base to make time in a busy schedule to come see a game. Lipscomb has similar issues with their athletics programs. Their school is affiliated with the Church of Christ, which means that things like drinking and partying and even staying out past 11 pm is not allowed. The Bison faithful aren’t exactly shotgunning beers outside of Allen Arena prior to the game.

The lack of interest in athletics as a whole is a negative and a positive.

Both the Bruins and the Bison have trouble selling tickets to the majority of their home games, and its understandable. I’m a basketball junkie and you’d have a tough time convincing me its worthwhile to pay for a ticket to the Florida-Gulf Coast come to town. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to convince an aspiring country music star to skip a gig at one of the local honky-tonks to see a game against 2-14 Jacksonville.

But it also helps to build up the intensity for the times that the two schools do share a court. The Battle of the Boulevard is more than just a basketball game; its an event. Its something that people look forward to, talk trash prior to and attend because it fills their social agenda.

“Its an event and everybody hypes it up and talks trash on facebook and everyone promotes the game and comes out,” Belmont senior forward Mick Hedgepeth said. “The news comes to our practice the day of the game and I’m sure it goes to their’s. To see what the coaches and players have to say. Its a blast.”

Case in point: Belmont SID Greg Sage said that even though Belmont’s basketball team has been relevant nationally for the past few years, he still has a tough time convincing some of the local media to come cover a game. That will happen when you’re team is far from the only game in town.

But on Friday afternoon, both of the FM sports radio stations in Nashville were broadcasting their afternoon drive-time shows live from the student center right outside the doors to Belmont’s arena.

That doesn’t happen unless Lipscomb is visiting.

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The Battle of the Boulevard dates all the way back to 1953.

This year’s first installment, an 85-74 come from behind victory on the road for Lipscomb in front of a Curb Center record crowd of 5,227, was the 129th in the history of the series. The Bison improved to 73-56 all-time vs. Belmont with the win. They’ve played as NAIA teams and as members of Division II. They’ve shared conference affiliations in the Volunteer State Athletic Conference and the TransSouth before the Atlantic Sun. And while Belmont is currently the stronger hoops program, it wasn’t always that way.

“They had the upper hand, they were a phenomenal NAIA powerhouse,” Belmont head coach Rick Byrd told Kyle Whelliston of the Mid-Majority in his book “One Beautiful Season”, which chronicled his travels during the 2009-2010 season. “But we challenged them, and by 1994-95 we beat them six times in a roe. For the first ten years, I was just trying to get us to the point when we were good enough for us to beat Lipscomb. At the beginning, everyone at the school was saying ‘We’ve got to be Lipscomb, we’ve got to beat Lipscomb’. My thought was that we had to get good enough to beat the other teams in the league, and then we could start thinking about beating the best. That’s how good Lipscomb was.”

When Byrd first took the Belmont job back in the mid-1980’s, Lipscomb was being led by Don Meyer, who just so happens to be the all-time winningest coach in college basketball history. Of the 923 wins he had in his career, 665 of them came with the Bison. He built Lipscomb from a team that won just 11 games in his first season into the 1986 NAIA champions, but it was a game that took place at the end of the 1989 season that will go down as one of the most memorable in the history of the rivalry.

Meyer had perhaps his best team in his tenure with the Bison. Lipscomb was 38-1 heading into the league playoffs, but Byrd’s scrappy group of underdogs knocked off the Bison and kept them from advancing to the National Tournament. With the majority of both rosters returning for the 1989-1990, it set the stage for the game in 1990 when, the Bruins opted to move their home game to Memorial Coliseum.

The 16,000 people that were in attendance is still a record for an NAIA game.

Byrd’s program eventually eclipsed that of Meyer so much so that, in 1997, the Bruins decided to move their athletics to the Division I level. They did so in 1997, and after four years as an independent, Belmont landed safely in the Atlantic Sun. Not to be upstaged by their intercity rivals, Lipscomb did the same in 2000. Their tortuous stint as a Divison I independent lasted only three years before they, too, ended up in the Atlantic Sun.

After an eight year hiatus, Belmont and Lipscomb reignited their rivalry. The Battle of the Boulevard was, once again, a conference clash.

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The athletes aren’t the only members of the schools that take this rivalry incredibly seriously.

The students do as well.

“You gotta beat them,” TJ Ojehomon, a sophomore an Lipscomb and the school’s athletics hype man said. “Its bragging rights. There’s a lot of pride. Having a successful season kind of rides on beating this team.”

Ojehomon is at every single Lipscomb home game, be it women’s basketball, men’s basketball, volleyball. You name it. He has his seat reserved at the end of the front row, and he spends the majority of the game working up a sweat trying to get the fans of his team into the game. As he describes it, he has “a big responsibility with getting the fans a little rowdy at our games and our athletic events.”

Ojehomon made the trek down the Boulevard to attend the game at Belmont. The way he explains it, the rivalry has more to it than just athletics.

“You don’t have to many schools of equal competition that’s right down the street from each other,” he said. “So when you do get two Division I schools who try to pride themselves on the same morals and try to compete with each other with the students they select and not just the athletics they’re performing? This is a huge game.”

Its not just basketball, either. The attendance at the Belmont’s soccer games increases five-fold when Lipscomb visits. Belmont students head over to Allen Arena to take in the women’s volleyball games with regularity. And all the energy and trash talk that we saw from the 5,227 people in the crowd for Friday’s basketball game?

Its present for the other sports as well.

“Its not one of those love-hate rivalries. We don’t like Belmont, Belmont don’t like us,” Ojehomon said. “They came over to our house for Battle of the Boulevard volleyball. We were doing the same thing, kind of heckling each other and talking a lot of trash, and at the end they came over and shook hands and said ‘Hey man, we had a great time.’ So it is friendly, but when we’re in the heat of it, I don’t like them.”

Braxton Wilson is a fifth-year senior at Belmont and a brother in the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity at Belmont. Playing the role Belmont’s Van Wilder, he’s been to every single Battle of the Boulevard basketball game, home and away, in his time at the school.

But for Wilson, the tone of the rivalry was set the first time he attended a game. As a freshman back in 2007-2008, Lipscomb hosted the first game. Wilson went over with a group of his frat brothers, but the Lipscomb athletic department stuck them up in a corner where their view was blocked by the basket.

“We ended up being so loud and so obnoxious that they never gave us a bad seat again,” Wilson said.

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It would be impossible to recap all of the legendary battles waged between these two schools over the past 59 years, but in the mind of John Langdon, a member of Belmont’s athletic department for 14 years and a big enough Bruin supporter that he’s stopped attending the Battle of the Boulevard games in Allen Arena because he can’t handle seeing Belmont losing to their rivals, one game in particular sticks out.

Belmont’s 74-69 overtime win over Lipscomb in the 2006 Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament title game.

“That win kind of sent the two programs on their divergent paths,” Langdon said. Belmont to the top of the league and Lipscomb back to the middle of the pack.

In just their third season in the Division I ranks, Lipscomb had managed a tie with the Bruins for the league’s regular season title. The two teams had split during the regular season, meaning that not only were bragging rights in the city on the line, a first-ever NCAA Tournament bid for either school was up for grabs. The importance of the game for the two programs could not have been overstated.

The excitement of the game didn’t let the crowd down, either. With less than 30 seconds left in regulation, Jordan Hare drove for an and-one layup, hitting the free throw to tie the game and force overtime, where the Bruins would eventually win and advance to their first of four NCAA Tournament. In 2008, Belmont lost to Duke by one in the first round of the NCAA Tournament when Gerald Henderson scored on a driving layup with 11.9 seconds left and the Bruins came up short on two opportunities in the final ten seconds.

Last season, the Bruins won 30 games and earned a 13 seed in the Big Dance, where they lost to Wisconsin by 14 in the first round. With the majority of their roster returning, Belmont was once again considered the favorite in the Atlantic Sun and one of the few mid-majors to get consideration for the top 25 prior to the season. Lipscomb has yet to make another serious run at getting an NCAA Tournament bid.

And if you believe the folks at Belmont, it was that win in 2006 that made all the difference.

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The other unique part of this rivalry is that for all the hatred on the court and the vitriol spewed from the stands during the games, the majority of the players are friends.

Or, the very least, friendly.

“I know some of their older guys being a senior,” Hedgepeth said. “I see them around, I like a couple of those guys. I’m friendly with them. But once you cross those lines, their is no friends.”

The way the Atlantic Sun is set up, every team in the league has a travel partner, and, obviously, Belmont and Lipscomb are travel partners. When Belmont plays at Jacksonville, Lipscomb plays at North Florida. Two days later, when Lipscomb is playing at Jacksonville, Belmont is playing at North Florida. Its like that every time they travel.

And it can set up some awkward situations.

“We flew back from Jacksonville Thursday, [a day before the Battle of the Boulevard], and we were on the same plane,” Sanderson said. “[Coach Byrd] was on one side of the aisle watching film and I was on the other side of the aisle watching film.”

Can you imagine Coach K and Roy Williams watching tape of each other’s teams sitting across the aisle from each other on a plane the day before UNC played Duke? I can’t.

“We’re friends. We don’t talk all the time, but we’re nice to one another and we respect one another,” Sanderson said.

Players at this level are no different than players are the high-major programs. They know that they shouldn’t tell members of the press anything that would make it up onto the wall of an opponent’s locker room, even if those members of the press are simply a pair of bloggers on a cross-country trip. That said, you could still get a sense of the intensity of this rivalry through the sugar-coated quotes from members of both teams.

“I do think that it’s not any fun to lose this game. It’s not any fun to lose any game, but it’s been a long, long time since we’ve been upset,” Byrd said after his team’s loss on Friday night. “If you want to say that last year’s loss at their place was an upset, you can, but they were picked to win the league and it was on their home floor. I don’t remember when we’ve been upset before that. It’s a long, long stretch, so I’m proud of what our team has accomplished. There aren’t many people who can go back over a year and a half and say that they haven’t been upset. This was an upset, based on where the teams were at the time, and how they’ve played to this point, but they outplayed us and deserved to win.”

“The games haven’t been as close here recently. When Scott first got in the league, it seemed like we had overtime games every time. They haven’t been as good recently, but it’s the toughest game for us to lose … a Lipscomb game on our floor.”

Its not just the coaches, either.

“We do play some pickup in the summer and we do have some friends on the other team,” Jacob Arnett, a redshirt junior at Lipscomb, said after Friday’s win. “We’ll hang out and stuff like that. Its not all hatred except on the court.”

“And maybe a little bit off it.”

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Last year, Belmont hosted the Battle of the Boulevard on January 13th. It was a Thursday and came just one day after Belmont started classes for the spring semester. In 2009-2010, the game was held at Belmont on January 26th, a full two weeks into the semester. In 2008-2009, Belmont hosted the game on January 12th. It was a Monday and while classes had yet to start — they were beginning the Wednesday of that week — the dorms had opened on the 11th, meaning that the students were back on campus.

This season, the Curb Center played host to the Battle of the Boulevard on January 6th, which is the earliest that this rivalry has taken place since both school became members of the Atlantic Sun back in the 2003-2004 season.

This year, Belmont’s dorms opened up on New Year’s Day. Their classes started on Wednesday, January 4th. Every Belmont student was back on campus for the game.

Coincidence?

“We don’t start school until Monday,” Sanderson said. “We usually have a whole section full with our people. That’s what the rivalry is about, to have that environment in here.”

Does that make this win feel that much better?

With a smile as he walked away, Sanderson simply said “It does.”

No. 3 Gonzaga improves to 20-0 with win over Portland

SPOKANE, WA - DECEMBER 07:  Nigel Williams-Goss #5 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs drives against the Washington Huskies in the first half at McCarthey Athletic Center on December 7, 2016 in Spokane, Washington.  Gonzaga defeated Washington 98-71.  (Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images)
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PORTLAND, Ore. — Zach Collins had 13 points and No. 3 Gonzaga remained the nation’s only undefeated Division I team with an 83-64 victory over Portland in a game Monday night that was rescheduled because of a winter storm earlier this month.

The Bulldogs have won 20 straight games, their longest streak since winning that many in the 2005-06 and 2003-04 seasons. Gonzaga is now 8-0 in West Coast Conference play.

Silas Melson and Jordan Mathews each added 12 points for the Zags, who led by as many as 33 points and had four players in double-digits.

Rashad Jackson and D’Marques Tyson had 15 points apiece for Portland, which won its first two games in conference but has lost six straight since then. The Pilots (9-11, 2-6 WCC) are playing their first season under former NBA player and coach Terry Porter.

The game was originally scheduled for Jan. 7, but a winter storm in Portland forced it to be postponed. Portland opened up extra seats and Gonzaga’s fans outnumbered the home team’s crowd.

The two teams had met just two days ago in Spokane, with Gonzaga leading from the start to win 73-52. But Portland, playing without top scorer Alec Wintering, out-rebounded the Zags 41-33 and held them to 45 percent shooting.

The Zags fared better on Monday, out-rebounding Portland 41-36 and shooting 42 percent.

Gonzaga guard Nigel Williams-Goss, who left the game against Portland because of a left hip injury with about five minutes left, was questionable against Portland but started.

But freshman forward Killian Tillie appeared to injure his right leg under Portland’s basket with 9:38 to go in the game, and teammates helped him from the floor. The 6-foot-10 Tillie, who is from France, is averaging 4.8 points this season.

Wintering, a senior, was hurt in last Thursday’s game against San Francisco and the Pilots announced this weekend that his college career was over because of a torn left ACL.

Wintering averaged 19.5 points and 5.6 assists a game this season. He was on Portland’s bench in street clothes, but during warmups before the game and at the break he was on the court, offering his teammates advice and encouragement.

Gonzaga jumped out to a 9-0 run but the Pilots closed within 9-8 following Philipp Hartwich’s dunk. Portland was competitive, answering Melson’s 3-pointer for Gonzaga with Jackson’s 3 that got the Pilots within 22-19.

But the Bulldogs responded with an 8-0 run to go up 30-19 and went into halftime with on a 16-4 run for a 38-23 lead. Melson and Jonathan Williams led Gonzaga at the break with eight points apiece. Jackson’s 13 first-half points for Portland were a new career high for a game.

Gonzaga extended the lead to 50-26 on Przemek Karnowski’s layup with just under 16 minutes to go, the Bulldogs were on the way to their 20th straight win.

THE BIG PICTURE:

Gonzaga: The Zags have won eight straight against Portland. … The Bulldogs’ longest winning streak was 22 games, set in the

Portland: Portland Trail Blazers President Neil Olshey was at the game. … The game, originally scheduled to be played over winter break, was sold out. So despite school being back in session, the usual student section wasn’t as large for the televised game.

POLL IMPLICATIONS: Gonzaga rose a spot from No. 4 and only trails No. 1 Villanova (19-1) and No. 2 Kansas (18-1) in the AP rankings released earlier in the day. The Bulldogs were also ranked No. 3 in the Feb. 23, 2015 poll.

VIDEO: Andrew Jones nails deep three to give Texas win over Oklahoma

AUSTIN, TX - DECEMBER 27: James Banks #4 and Andrew Jones #1 of the Texas Longhorns react during the game between the Texas Longhorns and the Kent State Golden Flashesat the Frank Erwin Center on December 27, 2016 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Covatta/Getty Images)
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Texas freshman Andrew Jones nailed one of the most heroic game-winners of conference play with a dagger against Oklahoma on Monday night.

The Longhorns put together an 84-83 win over the Sooners as Jones took the final possession off of a missed free throw to dribble across the floor and fire an NBA-range bomb over a defender.

This win isn’t going to save a struggling Texas season, but it’s a nice win and a confidence-boosting shot for a McDonald’s All-American who has the potential to be a big-time player with some more seasoning. Jones finished with 16 points in the win as the Longhorns are now 8-12 and 2-6 in the Big 12.

(H/t: Mike Leslie)

VIDEO: Dennis Smith Jr. caps N.C. State win with thunder dunk

DURHAM, NC - JANUARY 23:  Dennis Smith Jr. #4 of the North Carolina State Wolfpack drives in for a dunk as time expires during their win against the Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium on January 23, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina. North Carolina State won 84-82.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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Dennis Smith Jr. showed why he is a potential top three pick in this year’s draft and why he was the reason many thought that the Wolfpack could be an Elite 8 team coming into the season on Monday, popping off for 32 points and six assists as N.C. State won at No. 17 Duke, 84-82.

He capped off the performance with the perfect exclamation point, a dunk contest-worthy throwdown:

Let’s get another angle of that dunk, shall we?:

Three Takeaways from N.C. State’s win over No. 17 Duke

DURHAM, NC - JANUARY 23:  Head coach Mark Gottfried talks to Dennis Smith Jr. #4 of the North Carolina State Wolfpack during their win against the Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium on January 23, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina. North Carolina State won 84-82.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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Freshman Dennis Smith Jr. had a monster performance as he scored 32 points and had six assists to lead the Wolfpack past No. 17 Duke for an ACC road win.

Here are three takeaways for an important win for N.C. State.

1. This is the Dennis Smith Jr. (and N.C. State) that we envisioned 

Before this season N.C. State received a lot of hype with some pundits — including NBCSports.com — because people knew that freshman Dennis Smith Jr. was a lottery pick talent and there were other pieces around him that could be productive. Smith has mostly lived up to his top-five hype this season but Monday night’s game saw the North Carolina native go to another level.

Smith comes from a family of N.C. State fans. It is part of the reason he selected the Wolfpack even though they aren’t a one-and-done factory like some other schools. The Wolfpack hadn’t won in Cameron Indoor Stadium since 1995 and this year’s N.C. State had lost four of five ACC games entering Monday.

And Smith went completely bonkers. He finished with 32 points and six assists as he was 4-for-6 from three-point range.

At the end of the first half when it looked like Duke might take a double-digit lead into the break, Smith converted a three-point play and followed it up with a tough, contested three to make it a six-point game. The second half saw more of the same from Smith as he nailed pull-up threes, got to the rim and finished through traffic. It was the type of mesmerizing performance that gets casual basketball fans excited about a player before March Madness begins.

Smith wasn’t the only good player for N.C. State on Monday. Freshman big man Ted Kapita gave crucial minutes inside as he registered his first career double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds. Abdul Malik-Abu was a great secondary option for Smith as he contributed 19 points and nine rebounds. Maverick Rowan (nine points) hit a key late three and some important free throws.

When this team has all of its pieces going you can see why so many people believed N.C. State was capable of the Sweet 16. It feels like this team could be in for a run and the road game at Louisville on Sunday is another major test.

2. Duke is still figuring out its ideal rotation (while getting some answers)

Interim coach Jeff Capel went to some interesting lineup choices on Monday night. Capel started the game by using the lineup that jumpstarted Duke’s second half against Miami. That meant increased minutes for freshman center Marques Bolden as he was paired with Jayson Tatum (16 points) and Frank Jackson.

Seniors Matt Jones and Amile Jefferson were the interchangeable parts who played the most minutes in the first half for the Blue Devils and the second unit included Grayson Allen (13 points), Luke Kennard (20 points) and Harry Giles.

The Blue Devils still have some disjointed sets and scorers are still struggling to play with Tatum at times but there were some promising signs. Giles (eight points, seven rebounds) continues to improve his natural timing and he knocked down a face-up jumper from 17 feet with ease that could help keep defenders honest on him.

There was some good but there was also some bad. Bolden regressed to being a non-factor once again and Allen struggled to find a consistent scoring touch with a 4-for-13 performance.

We still have yet to see the (mostly) full strength Blue Devils that make us believe they are a national title contender. It’ll be interesting to see which lineup ultimately plays the best for Duke but they’re struggling to figure out a consistent rotation.

3. Can N.C. State sustain this kind of effort on a nightly basis?

Monday night was N.C. State’s first road win of the season. So for as big as this win is, the Wolfpack still have a long way to go to becoming a consistent factor in a ridiculously deep ACC. Smith is going to get tested quite a bit by Louisville’s length and athleticism on Sunday and playing in front of that Cardinal crowd is one of the hardest things to do in college basketball.

It doesn’t get any easier for N.C. State and they can’t have a major letdown after the high of a road win like this. That losing stretch of four out of five games included some really bad losses. Boston College, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest are the kind of losses that tournament teams can’t sustain on a regular basis so the Wolfpack have to take care of  business against teams like that for the rest of the season.

Success on the road will also help N.C. State’s tournament cause. This Duke win is nice but now the Wolfpack get two more cracks at top-15 teams away from home with Louisville and Florida State in the next two weeks. If N.C. State can somehow split those road games and stay strong at home they’ll be in good shape the rest of the way.

PHOTO: Nevada wearing pink jerseys to honor Coaches vs. Cancer this week

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Nevada announced that they’ll be wearing special pink uniforms for the next two games to promote cancer awareness.

The Wolf Pack will wear the jerseys on Wednesday (Jan. 25) on the road against Boise State and at home on Saturday (Jan. 28) against New Mexico.

“We are extremely excited and honored to release our new Pink “Cancer-Awareness” Jerseys. It was apparent very early in our time here, that many members of our Nevada Wolf Pack Basketball Program and in our Pack community have been affected or are currently being affected by cancer,” Nevada head coach Eric Musselman said in the release. “We could not be more proud to help support the cause and unite to fight this horrible and devastating disease.”