The Belmont basketball team may be making its last appearance in Johnson City for quite awhile tonight, and that should leave many East Tennessee State fans feeling a bit conflicted.
Should they be glad the marquee program in the Atlantic Sun Conference is moving on to the Ohio Valley at the end of the school year? Or should they lament the end of a rivalry that stirs the emotions, even if it’s been a one-sided rivalry?
The Bruins have won four of the last six A-Sun championships and inflicted plenty of pain on the Bucs along the way, winning 13 of their 15 matchups since 2005. The Dome has been like a home away from home.
Perhaps the most demoralizing defeat was a 94-67 rout here in the conference final in 2007, after the Bucs had rolled through the regular season at 16-2. And who will ever forget the Kenyona Swader technical foul in the semifinals the next year, with the Bucs holding the ball and a late lead?
The series history isn’t something many around the ETSU program enjoy talking about. They prefer to think of the two years Rick Byrd’s team didn’t win the title, in 2009 and ‘10 – and theirs did.
This last visit by the Bruins is again the most attractive date on the Bucs’ home schedule, but it comes with a new twist. Both teams are fresh off losses on Saturday.
While the Bucs were shot down 73-65 by Jordan Burgason and Lipscomb, the Bruins suffered an inexplicable 79-78 setback at South Carolina Upstate.
The results left Belmont tied for first place with Mercer at 6-2, and ETSU in a three-way tie for third at 5-3. Tonight’s game marks the midpoint of the A-Sun schedule, and there should be a real sense of urgency on both sides.
“We gotta win at home, we’re coming off a loss, they’re coming off a loss,” said ETSU coach Murry Bartow. “It will be interesting to see how we bounce back.”
The Bucs certainly need to defend the 3-pointer better than they did against Lipscomb. Burgason made nine by himself on his way to 33 points, and the Bisons were 15 of 26 as a team.
Loaded with seniors, Belmont may not have as dynamic a shooter as Burgason, but it has a bunch of good ones.
The Bruins lead the A-Sun in 3-pointers made, at 8.5 per game, and are the top scoring team (80.2). They’re beating opponents by an average of 12 points.
In short, they have more offensive weapons than Lipscomb. And they’re much better defensively and on the boards.
“There are some similarities; both are very potent offensively,” said Bartow. “On paper, Belmont has defended better than Lipscomb, but Lipscomb won that game.”
Indeed, the Bisons prevailed 85-74 on the Bruins’ home floor two weeks ago. It was just Belmont’s second conference loss in two seasons; the one last year was also to its Nashville neighbor.
Of course, that’s been the heated nature of the Battle of the Boulevard. But how to explain Saturday’s loss at Upstate?
The Bruins were up 16 at the half and led for all but 22 seconds in the contest. Then Torrey Craig grabbed an offensive rebound and scored with less than a second left to give Upstate its signature win since coming into the A-Sun.
The upset is likely to refocus Belmont, which hasn’t suffered back-to-back losses in the conference in more than two years. Or maybe it’s a sign the Bruins aren’t as good as everybody thought. The Bucs can only hope so.
Kelly Hodge is managing sports editor of the Johnson City Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org