For the second year in a row, the Belmont Bruins won the Atlantic Sun Conference championship and earned an NCAA tournament bid.
Unlike last year, however, the Bruins had to rally to get their chance to go to the Big Dance.
One year after winning the conference title game by 41 points, the Bruins had to come back from a 13-point deficit to beat the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles 83-69 Saturday night in Macon, Ga.
Coming into the game, Belmont head coach Rick Byrd knew that a young FGCU team that had beaten the No. 2 seed Mercer and No. 3 seed USC Upstate this week had the momentum to beat the Bruins.
“To come in the tournament and beat the two seed on their floor in a packed house and then take it to us, a team that’s got four all-conference players and a bunch of juniors and seniors that have won, and been here, and beaten them badly. To play like they did, it was impressive,” Byrd said.
The Eagles, the tournament’s sixth seed, took an early 10-6 lead in the first five minutes of the game, and took an even bigger lead after Belmont tied the game at 15 with 12 minutes to go in the half.
Led by strong perimeter shooting from Sherwood Brown and Filip Cvjeticanin, the Eagles led by as many as 11 points multiple times in the first half.
“We gave him [Cvjeticanin] too much space in the first half, and he made us pay for it.” said Byrd.
Ian Clark and JJ Mann trimmed Belmont’s 11-point deficit near the eight-minute mark, but FGCU continued to control the game with speedy and accurate shots.
After a Blake Jenkins’ layup, however, the Bruin offense started to come alive as Scott Saunders, Drew Hanlen and Kerron Johnson all made baskets that cut the Eagles’ lead to nine with less four minutes to go.
Belmont continued to build offensive momentum with shots from Ian Clark and Saunders for the remainder of the half. Clark’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer at the end of the half cut left the Eagles with a 42-39 lead.
The start of the second half marking a turning point for the Bruins, said senior Mick Hedgepeth.
“I think our whole team changed. We had that sense of urgency that I wished we had started the game with. Scott and I tried to be more physical, we had the confidence in our team, and I’m proud of our team of responding.” said Hedgepeth.
Early 3-pointers from Jenkins and Hanlen gave the Bruins their first lead since the early first half. It was a lead Belmont for the next six minutes, and eventually extended their lead to 58-50 with post play from Brandon Baker, Saunders, and Hedgepeth.
Belmont’s post play continued to shine as the Bruins jumped to a 65-55 lead with eight minutes to go despite shots from FGCU’s Chase Fieler and Kevin Cantinol.
The Bruins’ late runs were characteristic of the team’s play this year, Byrd said.
“It’s amazing how much better you shoot and play offensively when you’re more active and more into defensive possession,” he said. “Coach Bartow mentioned the other night ‘out-spurtablility’ in his news conference and I think that’s true of our team. We have moments in games that we can just run off some points.”
Five Bruins scored ten points or more in the game, including Clark, Saunders, Hedgepeth, Jenkins and Johnson.
After the game, Clark and Johnson both earned Atlantic Sun All-Tournament honors. Johnson was also named tournament MVP.
Belmont’s next opponent will be announced when the NCAA tournament bracket is announced on Sun., March 11.