Their programs have forged quite a history in the Atlantic Sun Conference since East Tennessee State became a member for the 2005-06 season.
Along with the history, a pretty intense rivalry has developed as well.
East Tennessee State and Belmont have combined to win the previous six A-Sun men’s basketball conference tournaments, and Belmont will get the chance to extend that streak to seven on Saturday. The Bruins defeated the Bucs 69-61 on Friday night at the University Center.
It was a typical hard-fought game between the two teams, and it was tense from the outset.
“It’s always a tough game when we play them,” Belmont’s Ian Clark said. “Every year when we go up there, it’s a big crowd, and those people have some bad blood for Belmont University. They always come out and play hard and compete against us, and we know it’s going to be a difficult game.
“Our guys just have to come out and play hard and match them.”
Belmont won both games in the regular season by scores of 82-70 and 80-59. This year’s Bruins’ sweep just adds to the long rivalry, and the intensity of the series is matched not only by the level of play but also the importance of the games. The Bruins won the tournament championship in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2011.
ETSU stopped the Bruins’ dominance for two years, winning the title in 2009 and 2010.
Belmont leads the all-time series 15-8 and 3-1 in tournament games. The two teams had faced off twice before in the semifinals in 2008 and 2009 with each team winning once. The Bruins also beat the Bucs in the 2007 championship game.
“Give East Tennessee State credit,” Belmont Head Coach Rick Byrd said. “They play hard, and they compete, and it was a terrific game. We’re just happy to get another chance to play.”
The intensity of the rivalry was in full force Friday. With large crowds for both teams cheering on their players, the Bucs and Bruins went at each other in a well-played, hotly contested game.
ETSU controlled the first half and built a 31-26 lead at the break. But Belmont responded with a strong second half, outscoring the Bucs 43-30 in the final 20 minutes.
The key was an 18-4 run by Belmont to start the second half as it took control of the game and held the lead the rest of the way.
“Resiliency is the word for this team all year,” Belmont’s Kerron Johnson said. “Every person on that bench wants to take the big shot, and when you have that many guys who are mentally tough and who want those shots, it’s great. Coach always tells us to be ready for that shot and don’t hesitate.”
Daniel Shirley is the sports editor of The Telegraph in Macon. Follow complete coverage of the 2012 General Shale Brick A-Sun Basketball Championship at www.macon.com/mercer and follow Daniel at @DM_Shirley for live updates throughout the tournament.