"That was beyond our wildest dreams," Belmont coach Rick Byrd said. "ETSU is too good a team for this to happen. I think this was the best game any Belmont team I've coached has played - certainly for a half. To shoot like that then keep them from making a run … given the stage, this is the best game one of my team's has played."
The Bruins did it the hard way, beating the Bucs on their home floor inside Memorial Center. Of course, Belmont has made Johnson City its home away from home since ETSU joined the A-Sun, winning all eight games inside the mini-dome.
"It's hard to explain," Byrd said. "I think it's like rolling the dice. Sometimes your number comes up four or five times in a row. We were fortunate to win some of those games."
The Bruins were in control of the game from the opening tap and never relented. They were a remarkable 14-for-29 from 3-point range, but that only tells part of the story. Their sizeable early was built in the opening 20 minutes and came on the strength of remarkable shooting display from beyond
the arc. A 22-7 run in the first seven minutes showed what kind of game it was going to be. Belmont started with six different players making 3-pointers.
It kept going from there. An 11-point lead at that point kept growing as the half wore on. ETSU tried to make a couple of runs to put a dent in the Belmont armor, but poor shooting snuffed out the early comeback attempts.
Meanwhile, Belmont kept firing and making from long range, sinking 12-of-19 from long distance before the break. The last one was really a dagger to the Bucs comeback chances. ETSU's Brad Nuckles finally got one to fall with four seconds left but tournament MVP Justin Hare raced downcourt and hit a running, double-pump 3 at the buzzer to keep momentum on the side of the Bruins.
"That was a worst fears come true scenario," ETSU coach Murry Bartow said. "Their shooters were hot and they played incredible well. The last two minutes of the half were pivotal. It was a 10-point game and we've got a chance to get it to single digits, but Wicke hits a 3 and Hare gets that one at the buzzer."
Overall, Belmont shot 53 percent in the first half while limiting ETSU to 35. Trailing big at the half, Bartow and the Bucs did not loose faith, but a second-half run was not to be.
"In the second half, knowing the type of team we've been all year, I thought we could come back and win. I felt if we could ever get it to single digits the crowd would get into it and we could win. I still felt that way with nine minutes left. We got it to 14 then next thing you now it's back up
to 20. Then you start fouling and playing a way you don't want to play and 20 becomes 30."
The Bucs played even with the Bruins for most of the half, but could never get that needed run on track.
Belmont's defense had a lot to do with that. Every ETSU shot was contended and the Bucs' big guns were held in check. Conference player of the year Courtney Pigram (Memphis) managed 21 points, but he could never seem to get into a rhythm. He failed to hit a 3-pointer in the game.
In fact, freshman guard Dequan Twilley (Shelbyville) was the only Buc to connect from beyond the arc. He made 3-of-4 tries but the rest of the team was 0-for-13.
Andrew Reed (Port Richey, Fla.) had 13 points and eight rebounds for the Bucs, who were outrebounded in the game 53-33. Mike Smith (Vandalia, Mo.) added 11 points, six boards and three steals. Both Smith and Pigram were named to the All-Tournament team.
Andrew Preston recorded his second double-double of the tournament - the only two double-doubles of his career - with 18 points and 10 rebounds. Wicke added 18 points and three assists, Hare tallied 17 points, five boards and three assists and Boomer Herndon put up 10 points and grabbed nine boards.
The Bruins can now look forward to selection Sunday - where their NCAA fate will be announced.
"We're going to play a 2 or a 1 (seed)," Byrd said. "I hope we don't, though. Our RPI is decent, better than last year when we played a 2."
ETSU's season does not end with the loss. As regular-season champs, the Bucs will get an automatic invite to the NIT tournament.
"There's no telling where we'll end up in the NIT," Bartow said. "Obviously, we wanted to be in the NCAA, but any postseason is good because you get to keep playing games. Also, with the young guys, you get that extra week and a half of practice and that's very important."
• Belmont inched closer to the Bucs in the two schools' all-time series.
ETSU now leads 6-4. The Bruins take the season series 2-1 and have won four of the last five. The final margin was somewhat of surprise. Both regular
season games this year and one last year went to overtime.
• This tournament saw a familiar pattern for Belmont. Just like last year -
also as a two-seed - the Bruins beat the No.7 seed in the opener, the No. 6
in the semifinals and No.1 in the finals.
• The No.2 seed is apparently the place to be. They have won the last four
A-Sun tourney titles - all against the No.1 seed.
• On the other side of the coin, being No.1 is not all it's cracked up to
be. The top seed has reached the finals in each of the last eight years, but
have only one title in that span.
• The Bruins become the fifth team in league history to repeat as champions.
• ETSU falls to 7-3 in conference tournament championship games.
• The Bucs have one prior appearance in the NIT tournament, dating back to
• With at least one more game guaranteed the Bucs will match a school record for games played with 34. The 24 wins are fifth in the annals.
• The loss snaps a string of 16 wins in 17 games. The Bucs had also won 10
straight on their home court. They finish 15-2 at home this year.
• ETSU is fifth in the nation in steals with 10.2 per game. That number was
helped by 11 swipes against the Bruins.
• Brad Nuckles continues to inch closer to 1,000. His four points against
Belmont five him 994 for his career.