SALT LAKE CITY – Belmont is winless in six NCAA tournament appearances and the Bruins have lost big in five of those, including Thursday's 81-64 loss to sixth-seeded Arizona.
Still, coach Rick Byrd said this year's team overachieved.
"It's hard, but I told those guys in there, I wouldn't have given them a chance to win this season (after losing three All-Conference players)," Byrd said.
Instead the Bruins went on to win 26 games and the Ohio Valley Conference tournament, and even pick up Top 25 votes along the way while relying on plenty of 3-point shots.
Belmont never got going offensively against Arizona, starting 1 of 11 overall and 0 of 4 from beyond the arc before finishing at 39 percent shooting and 30 percent on 3s.
"I think this was pretty simple," Byrd said. "Arizona outplayed us."
Mark Lyons scored 23 points to lead Arizona (26-7), which used its huge size advantage to shut down the Bruins (26-7).
Arizona held a 44-18 edge on the boards, outscored Belmont 36-18 in the paint, blocked five shots and outshot the Bruins from 3-point range.
The Wildcats made 9 of 17 3-pointers, including a critical one from Solomon Hill with 4:40 remaining to stop an 11-2 Belmont run, and shot 57 percent overall.
Bruins guard Ian Clark entered shooting better than 46 percent from 3-point range, tops in the nation, but was 3 of 8 from beyond the arc.
"I don't blame people for picking Belmont," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "They have a great backcourt. They earned the seed they got. You look at them on paper and I don't know if anybody relishes seeing them in their bracket."
Kerron Johnson led Belmont with 22 points and Clark finished with 21.
Kevin Parrom, Kaleb Tarczewski and Nick Johnson added 12 points each for Arizona, which led 32-20 at halftime after closing on an 11-2 run.
Byrd didn't realize Arizona's defense could be so formidable.
Belmont's lowest field goal total this season entering the NCAAs was 22 against Kansas. Arizona held the Bruins to 20.
Arizona led by as many as 21 points, 64-43, with 7:45 remaining before Belmont went on a 10-0 run, capped by back-to-back 3-pointers by Clark and J.J. Mann. The 3s came just seven seconds apart as Mann stole the inbounds pass.
But Parrom countered with a driving layup and Hill hit another 3-pointer — Arizona's eighth — to bump the Wildcats' lead back to 15 points, 69-54, with 4:29 left.
Arizona's size advantage was evident early as the Wildcats jumped out to a 14-4 lead thanks to a 14-3 edge on the boards and cold shooting by Belmont.
Belmont wouldn't hit its first 3-pointer until Johnson's step-back shot with 10:55 left in the first half. Blake Jenkins followed with a towering dunk off a pass from Johnson to pull the Bruins to 14-9 and Clark's first 3-pointer got Belmont within 16-14 with 8:33 left in the first half.
Arizona closed on a 16-6 run to take a 32-20 lead into the break.
At halftime, the Wildcats had made twice as many 3-pointers (4 of 9) than Belmont (2 of 13).
Nick Johnson was the primary defender on Clark most of the night, with help from Jordin Mayes.
"Sometimes they score and you get the sense that tonight he earned his points," Miller said of Clark. "And that's what we want them to do, earn points."
If Byrd didn't realize Arizona could play that well defensively, Miller said it was because of the Pac-12 competition.
"We have been a good rebounding team all season. But if you put us under the microscope in our conference, we got away from the dominant rebounding team that we once were and we talked about it," Miller said.
Byrd said the Bruins also hurt themselves.
"Again, this is crying over spilled milk, but we missed five layups in the first half," he said. "We missed the same kind of 3s that they made throughout the game, and if you're going to beat a team that is that good and that talented, you kind of have to make it go the other way. You've got to make big-time plays and finish layups and we have to shoot it better than they shoot it, and we didn't do it."