Leave it to East Tennessee State to get the Belmont Bruins back on track.
The Bruins held the Bucs to 12 points in the first half and cruised to an 82-70 victory Monday night in their final appearance in the Dome as a member of the Atlantic Sun Conference. They will join the Ohio Valley next season.
The Bucs are surely saying good riddance after losing for the 13th time in the last 16 games in the series. None of those losses has unfolded with more ugliness than this one.
The Bucs shot 4 of 25 from the field in the first half and trailed 27-12 at the break. If Belmont had run its offense with typical efficiency, the difference could have been 30.
Regardless, the Bruins were never seriously threatened the rest of the way, though ETSU did whittle the deficit to single digits after three free throws by Jarvis Jones in the final minute made it 79-70.
“I’m guessing no team has ever given up 12 points in the first half and 58 in the second,” said Belmont coach Rick Byrd. “There were some very strange numbers.”
The Bucs (10-9) have been knocked completely off track after winning five games in a row. They suffered their first home loss to Lipscomb in a rain of 3-pointers on Saturday, then had nothing offensively to throw against the Bruins (14-7), who were themselves coming off a shocking loss at South Carolina Upstate.
The A-Sun standings now show Belmont and Mercer tied at the top, at 7-2, at the midpoint of the schedule. ETSU dropped two games behind, in a three-way tie for fourth, and will play at Upstate on Friday night.
“You can’t lose at home,” said Bucs coach Murry Bartow, “and we’ve lost two in a row here now. We’re pretty down, but there’s a lot of season left and, trust me, we’ll keep fighting.”
A crowd of 3,965 filed into the Dome for the Bruins’ last visit, and both student sections around the court were packed, perhaps the result of Bartow and new ETSU president Brian Noland visiting the dorms with pizza Sunday night to encourage turnout. But the Bucs couldn’t generate much excitement.
They made just one of their first 15 shots, then managed just one free throw in the last 5:16 of the first half. The Bruins had finally taken control after center Mick Hedgepeth reeled off seven straight points to make it 24-11. Hedgepeth finished with a team-high 17 and seven rebounds.
A 3-pointer by Drew Hanlen, the Bruins’ only one of the half, left the Bucs trailing by 15.
“If you’d told me before the game that Belmont would have 27 at the half, I would have been ecstatic,” said Bartow. “But we only had 12. It was a pitiful first half offensively.”
The Bucs turned it around with 53 percent shooting in the second half. Of course, the Bruins shot 63 percent while scoring 55 points.
The outcome was never in doubt.
“They’re a team, if they get up, they’re hard to beat,” said Bartow. “Fundamentally they’re so good, they get the ball where it needs to be and they score. I bet they scored 30 points on layups in the second half.”
Junior guards Sheldon Cooley and Marcus Dubose led the Bucs with 18 points apiece. Adam Sollazzo scored 16 — all but three in the second half.
Cooley had seven of the team’s 12 at intermission.
“It was a big struggle tonight,” he said. “We couldn’t score and they picked our defense apart.”
Cooley and Tommy Hubbard each had four of the team’s 14 steals, and Jarvis Jones had three. The Bucs have been among the national leaders in that department all season.
The Bruins again showed a well-balanced attack, with five men scoring in double figures. Ian Clark, their all-conference guard, had 14, while Kerron Johnson and Adam Barnes each scored 12, and Hanlen 10. Clark also handed out five assists.