Saturday, March 5, 2011
In beating UNF by an astounding 41 points, 87-46, the Bruins shattered the conference’s record for victory margin in a title game. UALR and Samford each won title games by 28 points, a decade apart in 1989 and 1999.
The 41-point margin, the 23 offensive rebounds and holding UNF to a season-low 46 points represent just some of the numbers that have amazed viewers of the Bruins over the course of this season.
First we have to look at the bench play. Head coach Rick Byrd has utilized an 11-man
rotation throughout the season with all 11 averaging double-digits in minutes while none taking on more than 24.8. During the season all 11 regulars posted a double-figure scoring game.
The productivity has proved to be the nation’s best. The Bruin back ups lead the nation in scoring, rebounding and assists per game. No team’s bench in the country has led in all three of those statistics since 1996-97. Throw in the fact that the bench also leads in 3-point field goals made per game, just for good measure.
Beyond depth, Belmont has exhibited excellence. In league games, the Bruins posted a 20.9 points per game scoring margin. No team has posted as wide a margin in 12 seasons. You have to go back to the national runner-up team of Duke in 1998-99 to find a more dominant team in conference play. While Belmont is strong, they don’t exactly feature future first-round stars like Elton Brand, Shane Battier, Trajan Langdon or Corey Maggette. After advancing to the title game in workman-like fashion in the form, the blowout win returned with tonight’s 41-point masterpiece.
With any team this strong, the wins are going to pile up. Belmont became the first Atlantic Sun conference team to post 30 wins in a season. Georgia State, in 2000-01, and College of Charleston in 1996-97 each won 29 games. Something else Belmont would also like to exceed those teams in would be NCAA Tournament wins. Both won first-round games, representing the last two for the conference.
It’s long been rumored that the committee likes teams that finish strong. If that’s the case, Belmont’s seeding has to be on the way up. Since December 24, they own a mark of 21-1, the best record in the nation and are one of just five with only one loss in that time span (Long Island, Bucknell, Utah State. Oakland). They put together win streaks of nine and 12 over than span.
Another rumored favorite stat of the committee iswith road/neutral wins. Chalk up another statistical win for Belmont. They share the national lead in road wins with 13 and now stand at 18-4 in road/neutral games. No team in the country owns as many wins away from home than the Bruins.
Lastly, the RPI. The tool long viewed as the top criteria used by the committee shows Belmont checking it at No. 50 after Saturday’s win. In five of the last six years, the No. 50-ranked team has moved on to the NCAA Tournament, and in three of the years, that team received an at-large bid. Marquette was placed as a No. 6 seed last year while VCU and Kansas State each earned No. 11 seeds in 2009 and 2008, respectively. Kansas State pulled off a first-round upset, while VCU lost by one to UCLA.
You have to dig, literally to the last page of the Atlantic Sun’s record book to find the last time the A-Sun NCAA representative received a seed better than a 14. The aforementioned Georgia State program in 2000-01 received an 11 and bested Wisconsin in the opening round. It will take quite the argument by the committee to judge Belmont not worthy of such a lofty seed.
“Most of basketball is a mental game so for me to hit my first three it just keeps your confidence going to continue to make shots.” Sims
Sims wasted little time in the championship final to hit her first three as she struck 26 seconds into the game and continued her trifecta barrage with five more connections before finally missing an attempt late in the first half. Brown, Jessica Conner and Victoria McGowan thrived off Sims’ attack from deep by adding on one three apiece.
“We try to get off to a good start [from three] every game because we know if we do that we will feed off of each other and it makes everything easier and run smoother throughout the game.”
Things were running quite smooth for the Hatters as they led by 16 at the half and stretched their lead to 23 at the 11:27 mark of the second half on an old-fashioned three-point play by Victoria McGowan, who had her own success from behind-the-arc against Belmont in the semifinals.
Stetson’s success from three has extended past the A-Sun Tournament as the Hatters have hit six or more three pointers in 12 of 32 games this season and are 10-2 in those contests.
The Hatters 20 three-pointers throughout the three-game tournament earned Stetson their third A-Sun Tournament title (1989, 2005) and gives the Hatters a chance to make some noise the third month of the year.
Both wins marked program firsts for the Ospreys. It cemented the first-ever victory against the Bucs in 12 tries and propelled the Ospreys into the championship in only the program’s second appearance in the March tournament.
“Those wins are great, but we can’t be satisfied with what we have accomplished so far [in the tournament],” stated sophomore forward Andy Diaz. “We have to keep pushing until the final game to reach our goals.”
Now on Saturday, UNF and Head Coach Matthew Driscoll appear in their first-ever A-Sun Championship Final, where they will try to stretch their five-game win streak, a program Division I record, to six to clinch their first-ever A-Sun Championship.
The Ospreys’ championship opponent, top-seeded Belmont, has a winning streak of their own at 11 games, which is tied for second longest in the nation, and will give the Ospreys their toughest test of the four-day tournament.
“Coach [Driscoll] will start preparing for the game tomorrow immediately,” added Diaz. “He will have us ready to go tomorrow.”
Both teams will need to be at the top of their games in the championship final to clinch the automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament and for UNF their tournament of firsts just might led them to finish first.
Friday, March 4, 2011
Last season Belmont quickly built a 14-point lead midway through the first half, but lost Mick Hedgepeth to a leg injury and Jordan Campbell suffered a facial injury. Those losses combined with stellar performances from James Florence and Daniel Emerson sent the Bruins home in the quarterfinals for the first time since 2003.
Since that loss, Belmont’s only blemish in A-Sun play came at the hands of rival Lipscomb at a sold-out Allen Arena. Much like their 2010 Championship loss, the Bruins failed to preserve a double-digit advantage, relinquishing an 18-point advantage.
Returning to the scene of last season’s loss, the two Bruins lost to injury played key roles in the Bruins’ 80-72 victory. Jordan Campbell, who had averaged only 5.5 points in six career Championship games netted 17 while Hedgepeth notched 11 points and grabbed nine rebounds – six on the offensive end.
“We kind of expected them to come out with a lot of energy in this atmosphere and especially coming off a big win,” Kerron Johnson said. “We played our style and teams get tired, and we made our runs when we kind of took advantage of their fatigue. But they had a lot of energy at the end of the game and as well they should with that crowd, it was just a great environment to be in.”
Belmont has experienced mixed results playing on the home floors of opponents in Championship play. Prior to Friday night’s victory, Belmont’s lone win in three tries came in the 2007 title game when they used a 12-for-19 first-half shooting performance from the 3-point arc to trounce ETSU, 94-67. In addition to last year’s defeat, Belmont ‘s 2003 quarterfinal loss to Georgia State came at the GSU Arena.
Having cleared the home-town hurdle, Belmont seeks a fourth title, one that would tie UCF for the most in Atlantic Sun history. Belmont has several streaks to try and build on – the Bruins are 3-0 all-time in title games and are 16-0 this season when donning their home white jerseys.
The Hatters led the Bruins, 45-43, after McGowan knocked down two free throws following a foul on a drive with 13 seconds remaining.
Following McGowan’s heroics at the charity stripe, Belmont’s Shaunda Strayhorn hit what was believed to be the game-winner when she drove to the right side of the bucket and laid up her sixth and seventh points of the game as she was fouled on the play and hit the subsequent free throw.
So with the clock reading 1.4 seconds, McGowan took an in-bound pass from Tierra Brown bounced the ball once and then made a lasting impression on the fans in attendance for a half-court winning shot.
Her 50-foot heave on the University Center court sent the Stetson bench into a frenzy as it banked of the glass and fell through to put the Hatters into the A-Sun Championship Finals for the first time since 2005.
The shot sent the Hatters’ faithful into a roar, but left the all-conference guard speechless after the game.
“Everybody was just ecstatic after the shot. There is really no way to describe that feeling we all had.”
March Madness at its finest.
Entering the 2008 Championship title game, neither the Dolphins nor the Lady Bucs had ever experienced a conference title or an NCAA Tournament berth. ETSU grabbed the title that season with a three-point win in Nashville. As customary in boxing, the two combatants met one year later in a rematch. ETSU retained the belt with a 58-52 victory. A UNF upset in the 2010 Championship semifinals prevented third straight finals showdown.
After the one-year hiatus, the two found themselves bracketed on the same side. After dispensing of UNF, head coach Jill Dunn and the Dolphins earned their third shot at the Lady Bucs.
“They [had] gotten the best of us the past couple years, but I think we’re ready for it,” Dunn said in advance of Friday’s contest. “I [thought] this [was] the year that we [had] to do whatever we [could] to take them out. You aren’t going to win the Atlantic Sun Tournament without facing ETSU. We [knew] that day [was] coming and we [were] looking forward to it.”
The Dolphins jumped on the Lady Bucs early and built a 13-point first-half lead. However, as the contest moved into the later rounds, the Dolphins couldn’t deliver the knock-out punch. Slowly the Lady Bucs worked their way back into the game, even taking one lead, 57-56, with 1:25 left.
“They came in on a mission and they came in with a lot of emotion and passion,” ETSU head coach Karen Kemp said. “They took us out of everything we tried to do in the first half, so I give them all the credit for that.”
Instead of throwing in the towel, Jacksonville got a critical steal and lay-up by Jessica George to give JU back the lead with one minute remaining. Despite missed free throws in the waning seconds, the Dolphins exhaled in victory when a 3-point try at the buzzer by Jasmine McIntosh rimmed off.
“I am just extremely proud of pulling that game out,” Dunn said. “Obviously we have had a huge monkey on our back with ETSU for a couple of years now. From day one I thought that this was the team that could get it done and I just like they believe in themselves, they are playing with confidence really showed the past two days.”
Having cleared the hurdle of ETSU, 40 minutes stands between Jacksonville and that elusive NCAA bid.
But not to the two healthy seniors on the roster. Mark Hall and Brian Mills stared the challenge of losing two of the team’s most valuable pieces square in the face and turned it on its head. The duo lifted Mercer to seven wins in its last nine games and a spot in the 2011 General Shale Brick A-Sun Championship Semifinals with an impressive win against preseason favorite Lipscomb.
“We knew as seniors we would have to rally the troops and bring everyone together,” Mills said.
Both players described the opportunity that existed for the entire roster, a perspective that might have been lost on others.
“I just made sure that we let everyone know we all need to step up with two of our best scorers out,” commented Hall. “Brian and I talk all the time, but especially when B-Moore went down, we knew everyone would have to take advantage of their opportunity and step up. This is the opportunity everyone wants who is sitting on the bench, a chance to come in and make a difference.”
The victory at the expense of the Bisons - in front of a raucous crowd of over 2200 at the University Center - epitomized the impact the pair have had on their team. Hall scored the game’s first two baskets on aggressive drives to the basket, setting up the tone for the entire contest. Mills finished with 27 points and six boards, again shouldering the offensive burden.
“They have done a great job keeping us together. Our young guys have followed in stride,” stated head coach Bob Hoffman.
Mills has averaged over 19 points per game since the Smith injury and has become one of the most dangerous offensive players in the league over the last six weeks.
“He is a special guy. He has gotten into a rhythm and the guys are finding him in the right spots. Brian has put in countless hours to get to this point. When you see a guy put in that time and get a chance to get a return on his deposits, it is a real blessing,” Hoffman said.
Hall continues to turn in solid performances and sparks the team with tough baskets.
“Mark keeps doing things where I look at him and go ‘Mark, what are you doing?’,” reflected Hoffman. “He’s special. He really brought the energy to help get us get going at the start tonight and remained on point the whole game.”
While the team may rely on them, it sounds like they depend on each other.
“Mark is my wingman,” said Mills. “Sometimes I don’t get as vocal as I should, so he brings that. I told him tonight to make sure this wasn’t our last game and we did.”
Hall countered with praise for his teammate.
“He is the silent type, but he gets the job done. Brian will put you on his back and carry you if he has to.”
They will need another stellar outing on Friday when Mercer looks to eliminate A-Sun power Belmont from the conference championship for the second year in a row.
Thursday, March 3, 2011
Following a two-game dip in production, she ripped of a string of 11 straight double-figure scoring games, averaging 15.5 points in that span. Her streak came to an end with a seven-point outing against ETSU. She missed the next game, only to return against Stetson to score five points.
The Stetson contest would be the last action Nelson saw for two weeks. During that time, Belmont endured its longest losing streak in program history. It reached eight games leading up to a road contest at Campbell at a time when even Belmont’s standing for making the General Shale Atlantic Sun Championships was in doubt. Although she only scored five points in minutes of action, she grabbed seven rebounds and the anchored a defensive effort that limited the Camels to 33.3 percent shooting.
“I think if you look at us statistically, Haley Nelson is by far our player of the year,” Brittney Ezell, first-year head coach at Belmont said. “The way that she plays, the way that she competes, elevates our entire team. You can’t replace a player that has Haley’s talent level and passion.”
In close home losses to ETSU and USC Upstate, Nelson regained her scoring touch, averaging 14 points per game while shooting better than 57 point from the floor. In the final weekend of regular-season play, she led the Bruins to road wins at Mercer and Kennesaw State by averaging 18 points and 10 rebounds. The two wins elevated the Bruins up to the sixth seed and thus avoiding Stetson and ETSU in the quarterfinal round of the A-Sun Championship.
I have been calling her ‘Big T’ - it stands for Big Time,” Ezell said. “We tell her all the time, big time players make big time plays in big time games. And she has really asserted herself in that role.”
Back on the University Center floor for the second time in a week, Nelson keyed a defensive effort not seen before at the A-Sun Championships. The Bruins limited Campbell, who had scored 98 points in its most recent outing, to 42 points – the fewest points ever allowed in an A-Sun Championship game.
“We also tell them before the game, we don’t have stars we’re trying to build constellations at Belmont,” Ezell said. “We want a bunch of stars.”
If’s Nelson’s star continues to rise, Belmont could very well back in the A-Sun title game for the first time since 2007.
During that span, UNF twice fell in overtime, lost by 20+ points twice and this season saw both games decided by just one bucket. The feelings around the UNF camp believed that the River City Rivalry was not necessarily a rivalry but more of a one-sided affair.
Then came the quarterfinal matchup between the two teams in the 2011 Atlantic Sun Conference Basketball Championship.
It marked the second appearance for UNF in the A-Sun Tournament after falling to the Dolphins in its inaugural appearance in the 2010 quarterfinals, but this year sophomore Jerron Granberry and the rest of the Ospreys broke through with a 68-64 victory to stop the slide to their crosstown foes and advance to the semifinals for the first time in program history.
“[The win] means we are moving forward as a program,” Granberry said. “Last year, we came in and almost were satisfied to be there, but this year we came here to win the A-Sun Championships as well as gain some respect across the league for UNF.”
Nearly perfect in the game, Granberry scored 23 on 7-of-8 shooting and 8-for-9 nine from the charity stripe to not only secure the comeback victory for the Ospreys, who trailed by six at the break, but also take the River City Rivalry to another level .
“It’s a rivalry now because it’s not a rivalry when they always beat us,” he said. “So now that we got a win the series is just going to be even better.”
With the program’s second win against Jacksonville and by knocking off the three seed in the championships, UNF has now accomplished one of their goals and with two more wins they can accomplish the second.
In their two regular-season meetings, Jacksonville lost both contests since the two became league rivals. Dating back to last season UNF had claimed the latest four contests, including a win the 2010 Championships – a game that denied Jacksonville a chance of making three consecutive title games.
Jacksonville exhibited a stifling effort the first 10 minutes of Thursday’s contest¸ forcing 16 misses on UNF’s first 18 attempts in building a 15-point first-half margin. Despite surrendering the lead in the closing stages of the second half, the defense turned up the intensity again and held on to a 56-52 victory
“We are very disappointed because we won the two games against them in the regular season, but they won the game that counts,” UNF head coach Mary Tappmeyer said.
Jacksonville advanced to the semifinals for the fifth-straight year. Only one other school in the conference boasts as impressive a streak. That team, Jacksonville’s opponent, ETSU, has also made the semifinal round every year since 2007. In three of those previous years, the Dolphins and Lady Buccaneers collided. In 2007, ETSU knocked out Jacksonville in the semifinal round. In both 2008 and 2009, they met in the title game with berths to the NCAA Tournament on the line. In both finals, ETSU emerged victorious and established itself as the class of the conference.
“[They play] a very physical game, a very up-tempo game and they do a tremendous job on the boards,” Jacksonville head coach Jill Dunn said. “They have been here the past three years so they have experience and confidence to know what it takes to get to the championship game.”
Like those two title games, ETSU snared both victories during this year’s regular season. Jacksonville held its own with the top seed, falling by seven at home and by 10 in Johnson City, Tenn.
“They have gotten the best of us the past couple years, but I think we’re ready for it,” Dunn said. “I think this is the year that we have got to do whatever we can to take them out. You aren’t going to win the Atlantic Sun Tournament without facing ETSU. We know that day is coming and we are looking forward to it.”
Dunn’s premonition came true and now her Dolphins have a chance to flip the script of years past.
The fifth-year senior averaged 16.9 points per outing this season, but the most important play he made in the quarterfinal showdown against the Camels came on the defensive end. With ETSU up by one and Campbell clinging to a chance to upset the second-seeded Bucs, Smith came away with a steal from Camels point guard Junard Hartley to clinch the fifth-straight semifinal appearance for the team from Johnson City.
“I’m one of the leaders of this team so I just wanted to play great for them and the team got the ball into my hands late and I just tried to make plays to help us win. With the game on the line at the end I needed to step up and I was in the right place at the right time and came away with the steal.”
The steal, one of four for Smith on the night, complete an all-around game for the Vandalia, Mo., native, who finished with 24 points, six rebounds and three assists.
As great as Smith was in the game for the Bucs, he did not carry them on his own as fellow seniors Micah Williams added nine points and seven rebounds, while Brown, a junior, added seven points, eight rebounds, four blocks and three steals.
“When you have seniors that have been here before in these kind of situations and have been to the NCAA (Tournament) it’s great for your confidence to have that experience and it really helps your momentum in the tournament.”
The Bucs, who have won their last seven A-Sun Championship games, now face the winner of the River City showdown between No. 3 Jacksonville and No. 6 UNF, who play at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday. Whomever the opponent, Smith and ETSU will be ready for their next opponent at the beginning of the game and at the end.
Wednesday, March 2, 2011
OK … a lot defensive. The Hatters point to the team’s defensive effort as the key to improving from six wins a year ago to 18 wins and a spot in the General Shale Brick A-Sun Championship semifinals on Friday afternoon.
“Our defensive intensity and our hard work in practice have made a big difference,” commented Tierra Brown. “Our commitment to defense really kicked in at the first of January and that has even helped our offense follow suit.”
Stetson’s shut-down performance against Kennesaw State in Wednesday night’s 65-47 quarterfinal victory certainly made the difference. The Hatters limited KSU to just 26 percent shooting for the game including a frigid 3-for-17 from the three-point arc. Throw in 20 forced turnovers and Stetson never trailed, cruising to its first tournament victory since claiming the title in 2005.
“I think we have played well. You can’t deny our body of work throughout the year,” stated third-year head coach Lynn Bria. “We want to be good defensively. We sold the kids on it and they bought into it. I told them before the year that if we play hard and play together that we’d win a lot of games.”
This team is not a one-trick pony, however. The Hatters rank second in the A-Sun in field goal percentage and shot a blistering 51 percent from the floor against Kennesaw State. Brown shouldered most of the load. The senior set a new A-Sun Championship record by drilling all five of her 3-point attempts on the way to a career-high 25 points.
“I know the end is near so I’ve been practicing and playing with a lot of energy and enthusiasm,” said Brown
Now she has a day’s rest as she and the rest of the team prepares for their next opportunity for a statement: a match-up with either No. 3 Campbell or No. 6 Belmont with a berth in the championship game on the line.
A year ago, the Owls stunned Lipscomb, costing the Bisons a postseason opportunity. Kennesaw State opened Wednesday’s first half with intentions of repeating its upset ways, taking a 23-16 lead against the favored Bruins.
True to their ways, however, the Bruins turned their depth and the 3-point shot to flip the lead and close the half up seven. Four different players hit 3-pointers and eight total players scored over the final 6:30 of the first half as the Bruins scored 19 of the final 24 points of the opening stanza to take a 35-28 lead.
The Bruins pushed the lead to 10 early in the second half and never saw their led dip back into single digits over the final 17 minutes as they advanced to the semifinals with a 72-57 win.
“Coached talked about 1-8 game and I believe that when you get to the tournament it’s 0-0,” All-Atlantic Sun guard Ian Clark said. “It doesn’t matter what your record was before hand. Anybody can win and Kennesaw knew that coming out last year and I am pretty sure they had [Lipscomb’s loss] it in mind this year.”
Head coach Rick Byrd turned to one of his favorite hobbies to find the proper analogy when describing Kennesaw State’s early effort.
“You are always told as a golfer you expect your opponent to make the putt that way you are not surprised,” Byrd, the A-Sun’s Coach of the Year said. “And that is what I told them. We need to expect their best shot and we need to expect them to play well.”
Belmont’s next opponents shouldn’t offer up any surprises. The Bruins will face either long-time rival Lipscomb or the host Mercer, a school they faced and beat last week, in the semifinals. The Bisons and Bears own the last two defeats of the Bruins. Mercer ended Belmont’s 2010 season at the A-Sun Championships and Lipscomb handed Belmont its lone conference loss of the season.
The ETSU Lady Bucs still entered the 2011 General Shale Brick Atlantic Sun Championship as the top seed and they still advanced to the semifinals of the tournament for the fifth consecutive year.
The similarities to the dominant championship teams of the last three years begin to break down at that point. Of the nine players to take the court today, only three (Tara Davis, Tosha Austin and Gwen Washington) scored in last year’s title game and the trio combined for just 15 points.
The three had a much larger impact on this year’s 83-75 victory over Lipscomb. Davis made the most of her 37 minutes on the court, scoring 23 points, grabbing seven rebounds and picking up five assists. Austin ripped down five boards including three on the offensive glass. Washington’s play off the bench may have been the key to ETSU’s come-from-behind victory as she netted a career-high 24 points.
“It has been different this entire season because we are so young and don’t have those great players like TaRonda (Wiles) and Sierre (Evans),” stated ETSU head coach Karen Kemp. “It was a lot of coaching for me … a lot more than the last few years. I’m really pleased to see our team grow and mature to be playing as well as they are at this point in the season.”
The glue for this team has been the senior duo of Latisha Belcher and Tara Davis.
“They know how to win. That is all they are accustomed to. TD gave us big buckets when we needed it,” Kemp said. “They are competitors and know how to win. It helps our whole team.”
Davis proved that in the second half. After managing just six points in the first half, the guard scored seven of the team’s final 11 points to put the victory on ice.
The young Bucs await the winner Thursday afternoon’s contest between No. 4 UNF and No. 5 Jacksonville. One more win and ETSU will match the conference record for consecutive tournament victories. They have knocked off Jacksonville or UNF in all their of title games - besting Jacksonville in 2008 and 2009 and UNF by a point last year.