The Belmont Bruins came out of the locker room a different team in the second half in their Atlantic Sun semifinal.
After trailing 31-26 against the East Tennessee State Buccaneers, the Bruins opened the half on a 12-2 run and rarely looked back in their 69-61 win at Mercer University Friday night.
The early second half run was the turning point for the Bruins, said head coach Rick Byrd.
“In the second half, we came out and played with a tremendous effort… It seemed like we got all the long loose balls in the first five to eight minutes of the half. It was a great coming out of the locker room effort that I think turned the game around,” he said.
The victory sends the Bruins to their second Atlantic Sun final in a row and puts them one win from their fifth NCAA tournament berth in seven seasons.
The game was a typical matchup against the Buccaneers, said junior guard Ian Clark.
“It’s always a tough game against East Tennessee State, they bring out a big crowd. Today our guys stepped up to the challenge and played really hard,” he said.
Ian Clark and Trevor Noack were the first to score for the Bruins, whose combined efforts were countered early an explosive ETSU team that took a 10-8 lead.
Belmont substituted heavily and often to try to find a combination that would combat an 8-2 ETSU halfway through the half.
The explosive pair of Adam Sollazzo and Marcus DuBose were unstoppable for the Bucs, scoring a combined 20 points with a game plan that showed the whole team’s improvement, said Byrd.
“I thought East Tennessee State had a great game plan, they’ve fought through some adversity here lately and it seems to me they’ve become a better team,” he said.
With almost seven minutes to go in the half, Clark attempted to reignite the Belmont offense, sinking his third of five 3-pointers and bringing the Bruins’ deficit to under four points.
More focused on offense in the second half, the Bruins took their first lead of the game 33-31 in the first three minutes after a JJ Mann 3-pointer.
Points from Scott Saunders, Ian Clark, and Drew Hanlen extended the Bruins’ lead to 12 points with more than 10 minutes to go.
From then on, the Bruins kept their lead despite getting into foul trouble. At one point, the Bucs narrowed the lead to three, but a Johnson 3-pointer and late free throws from Mann and Jenkins sealed the game for Belmont.
Clark and Johnson were Belmont’s leading scorers, earning 19 and 12 points respectively.
For Johnson, the win was another example of the grit the team has shown this season.
“Resiliency is a word I’ve used all year about this team. Every person on the bench wants the big shot, and they never know who’s gonna get it. When you’ve got that many guys who are mentally tough, even when you’re not shooting that well, when those shots come, you’ve got to be ready to take them,” he said.
The win gave the Bruins a spot in Saturday’s Atlantic Sun Championship game against No. 6 Florida Gulf Coast.