NASHVILLE, Tenn. - - In arguably its most inspired performance of the season, Belmont men's basketball defeated East Tennessee State, 68-58, Thursday night.
The Bruins would have to alter their script this evening, as a trademark quick start would not be forthcoming.
ETSU rode the play of Isiah Brown to a 16-9 lead six minutes in. And though turnovers would plague the Bruins early, solid outside shooting kept the team in the game. Three-point field goals each from sophomore Ian Clark (Memphis, Tenn.), sophomore Trevor Noack (Keller, Texas), senior Jordan Campbell (Indianapolis, Ind.) and sophomore Brandon Baker (Milford, Ohio) enabled Belmont to get within 16-12.
Brown would answer with four more points, before three Justin Tubbs free throws stretched the margin to nine, 23-14, with 8:22 left in the half.
Through the offensive struggles, Belmont's defense tightened. The Bruins held ETSU without a field goal for nearly eight and a half minutes late in the first half. Belmont inched within 23-19 on another three-pointer from Clark, but simply could not string scores together.
After two free throws from junior Scott Saunders (New Orleans, La.) and two defensive stops, Belmont appeared poised to escape the first half down no worse than five points.
But as the clock winded down, Brown stole a Bruin pass and found Mike Smith downcourt. Smith would be fouled on his three-point attempt with 0.9 seconds left in the half.
Smith made two of three free throws to give the Bucs a 31-24 lead at halftime.
It was not a first half to remember for the Bruins; the team shot 29 percent (7-for-24) from the field and committed 10 turnovers. But Belmont did hold a +6 rebounding edge and limited ETSU to 39 percent shooting.
Junior Drew Hanlen (St. Louis, Mo.) got Belmont off to a nice start in the second half, as his three-pointer cut the margin to 31-27 with 19:18 left.
Yet ETSU would respond, pushing the lead back to 36-27 with 18:27 to go on a Justin Tubbs three-pointer.
From there, Belmont put it all together; attacking the basket, elevating its pressure defense, and controlling the backboard.
Belmont claimed its first lead of the game, 40-38, on two free throws from senior Jon House (Guelph, Ont., Canada) with 11:58 remaining.
After Tubbs tied the score, Clark capped Belmont's 16-4 run with a straight-on three-pointer to give the Bruins a 43-40 lead with 10:31 to go.
The teams would exchange haymakers for the next five minutes, with intensity and passion emblematic of championship play.
After ETSU reclaimed a 50-47 lead with 6:56 left on a Smith driving bank shot, Hanlen replied moments later with a three-pointer to tie the score at 50. On the play, junior Mick Hedgepeth (Crossville, Ala.) was fouled off the ball by Smith. Hedgepeth made two free throws to complete a five-point possession.
Belmont never trailed thereafter. A steal by Clark and two more Hedgepeth free throws stretched the Bruin lead to 54-50 with 5:32 left.
With Belmont stringing together defensive stops and feeding off the energy of the home crowd, the momentum continued. Sophomore Kerron Johnson (Huntsville, Ala.) added one free throw to make the score 55-51 with 4:55 to go.
Then Noack, Saunders and Clark each delivered interior baskets over a 90 second span to give the Bruins a 61-51 edge with 2:51 left.
ETSU got as close as 62-56 with 1:48 left on a Sheldon Cooley free throw, but Hanlen and Clark teamed on 6-for-6 free throw shooting in the final 1:32 to secure the victory.
All told, Belmont overcame a season-low 32 percent (17-for-52) shooting from the field - including 8-for-24 from three-point distance. The Bruins outrebounded ETSU, 44-28, and committed only three second half turnovers.
Belmont went 26-for-30 from the free throw line.
Clark led Belmont with a game-high 18 points and six rebounds. Saunders added 10 points and a game-high eight rebounds. 10 Bruins scored in the game.
Brown, Smith and Tubbs each scored 14 points for ETSU (19-10, 14-4 Atlantic Sun).
Belmont (24-4, 16-1 Atlantic Sun) secures at least a share of its fourth Atlantic Sun regular season championship in the last six years. The team secures the No. 1 seed in the upcoming Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament.
Belmont returns to action Saturday, Feb. 19 versus USC Upstate. Tip-off is set for 7:15pm CT from the Curb Event Center.
The live play-by-play of Voice of the Bruins Kevin Ingram can be heard on the Bruin Sports Network and 104.5 The Zone. Live video streaming will be available via ASun.TV.