MACON, Ga. — The East Tennessee State basketball team didn’t let Belmont dribble off to another conference without one last fight Friday night.
The Bucs just couldn’t win it.
Outscrapped for a half, the Bruins came to life behind Ian Clark and advanced with a 69-61 victory in the Atlantic Sun Conference semifinals at University Center.
Belmont (26-7) will ride a 13-game winning streak into tonight’s final against Florida Gulf Coast, which shocked Mercer on its home floor 62-58 in Friday’s nightcap. The top-seeded Bruins can win their fifth championship in seven years before moving on to the Ohio Valley Conference next season.
For ETSU, the campaign ended at 17-14 with its seventh straight loss in the series. The Bucs just didn’t have enough depth or firepower to build on a five-point halftime advantage.
“I thought we played a great first half,” said ETSU coach Murry Bartow, “but they have great spurtability. We burned a lot of timeouts trying to stop them. They just got that rhythm going in the second half. They have so many weapons, guys who can make threes.”
The Bruins made a dozen this time, including five by Clark, their all-conference senior guard. They shot 58 percent from the field in the second half and put 43 points on the board.
Belmont coach Rick Byrd said his team knew it was in a battle at the half.
“I think East Tennessee State deserves a tremendous amount of credit,” he said. “Their gameplan was great, and their effort was really good considering how many guys they play. They’ve fought through some adversity lately, and it seems like they’re almost a better team.”
But still not quite good enough to beat the defending champs.
The Bruins, who average a league-high 82 points a game, changed the momentum by reeling off the first nine points of the second half. The Bucs didn’t score for 41â„2 minutes and had to play catch-up the rest of the way.
“Our effort the second half was tremendous,” said Byrd, describing the halftime conversation with his players as “more Xs and Os, after a little outburst.”
“It seems like we got all the loose and long balls that first five or six minutes,” he said.
Belmont made 10 of its first 13 shots in the half to build a 12-point lead with 81â„2 minutes left, but the Bucs battled back despite serious foul trouble. Isiah Brown picked up his fifth with seven minutes left, two minutes after Tommy Hubbard got his fourth.
Hubbard would eventually foul out in the final minute.
The key sequence of the game came with the Bucs trailing 38-35 midway through the second half and Belmont center Scott Saunders standing at the foul line.
Saunders missed the back end of a one-and-one, but it was rebounded by Adam Barnes. The ball went back inside to Saunders, who drew Brown’s fourth foul as he scored. He then went to the line and missed again, but the Bucs knocked the ball out of bounds.
Clark finished the six-point possession with a 3-pointer at the 13:12 mark.
“One of my biggest pet peeves is free-throw blockouts,” said Bartow. “Sometimes the players think it’s a waste of time, but it hurt us tonight. Belmont is one of those teams that when you mess up, they capitalize.”
Less than three minutes later, Drew Hanlen hit back-to-back threes, and the Bruins had their 12-point lead.
Instead of fading away, the Bucs rallied with a 14-5 run. It was a 59-56 game after a tip-in by Adam Sollazzo with 2:55 to play. The senior point guard scored six of his 16 points during the comeback.
“If character was not right on the team, you lose that game by 25 points,” said “Bartow. “It shows a lot that we cut it and came back. We were right there.”
Kerron Johnson stemmed the tide and gave the Bruins a six-point cushion when he buried their 12th 3-pointer with 2:29 left. Hubbard answered with a jumper, but Clark drove for a layup and JJ Mann hit a pair of free throws.
A 3-pointer by Hubbard with 34 seconds left proved to be harmless.
Hubbard finished with 15 points and eight rebounds in his final college game. Junior guard Marcus Dubose added 15 and seven, respectively, for the Bucs, who held a 38-28 edge on the boards.
It was tough way to end a career for Brown, who had scored 22 points and set the school record for blocked shots a night earlier in the quarterfinals against North Florida. He managed just three points on four shots before fouling out; he played 24 minutes.
“It’s disappointing, so frustrating,” said Brown. “Sometimes I’d look at the referees like, Am I really fouling these guys?”
Clark led all scorers with 19 points and dogged Sollazzo end to end in the second half in a matchup of first-team all-conference guards. Sollazzo still led the Bucs in scoring and handed out five assists.
“He’s a 6-6 point guard with great vision,” said Clark, the A-Sun defensive player of the year. “He’s a tough guard. I just wanted to crowd him, make him uncomfortable and slow him down a little bit. I took it as a challenge.”
Sollazzo admitted the defensive pressure “kind of slowed the offense down,” but he was proud of his team’s effort in rallying from 12 points down.
“That’s what this team has been about all year,” he said. “We fought through plenty of adversity. We fight back no matter what.”