The Mercer student section erupted into chants of “We want Belmont!” after their win against Lipscomb in their Atlantic Sun tournament quarterfinal game.
The Bruins heard Mercer fans loud and clear. And Mercer got what they asked for.
““We heard them, but we embrace those challenges,” Belmont sophomore point guard Kerron Johnson said. “We love challenges like that.”
Despite a late rally by the Bears, Belmont was able to stave off Mercer on their home floor to win 80-72 and advance to the Atlantic Sun championship game for the first time since 2008.
“We expected to come out with a lot of energy in that crowd and this atmosphere,” Johnson said. “We play our style and teams get tired. We made our runs when we took advantage of their fatigue.”
The Bruins built an 41-30 first half lead behind senior forward Jordan Campbell’s 15 points. But in the second half, Mercer fought back.
Belmont stretched their lead to 13 on a Johnson lay-up, but the Bruins only made two field goals in the last eight minutes.
“I thought we got a little conservative,” Belmont head coach Rick Byrd said. “We stopped looking for shots, we stopped pushing the ball up the floor. I think that’s what you do too often in that situation.”
Two free throws by Mercer forward Brian Mills narrowed the margin to three with 3:07 left in the game. Belmont forced several key turnovers—including a key block by Campbell—and made free throws down the stretch.
“(Mercer’s) so good,” Belmont head coach Rick Byrd said. “If we can beat that team on their home floor where we’re in a game this important, then this is a huge win for us. And I say that mainly because of how good they’ve become.”
Mercer lost two of their best players to injury in the course of the season, but managed to win seven of their last nine games down the stretch.
Belmont advanced to the Atlantic Sun championship game at 6 p.m. EST tomorrow night against the winner of ETSU vs. UNF. That semifinal game is expected to end around 11 p.m. local time, leaving the Bruins less than 24 hours to prepare for the game that will decide their NCAA tournament fate.
“There will be a lot of preparation in our shoot around,” Byrd said. “There will be some coaches that don’t have much sleep.”
According to athletics director Mike Strickland, Belmont tried to organize a “fan bus” to help charter Bruin fans to the championship game on Saturday but there wasn’t enough interest. Forty-five people needed to sign-up, but only 30 expressed interest.