The Belmont Bruins earned the Atlantic Sun season title and navigated the A-Sun Tournament field from the number one seed, landing in this evening's Championship Game against underdog Florida Gulf Coast, with an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament on the line.
The Bruins captured the regular-season crown with a stellar 16-2 record in A- Sun action and closed the year with 11 straight wins. A full head of steam carried over into tournament play with a quarterfinal victory over Jacksonville (76-62) and a semifinal win over East Tennessee State (69-61). Belmont, which won the tournament title a year ago, has the most tourney titles with four.
Florida Gulf Coast has made an improbable appearance in the title game, sitting one game under .500 on the year at 15-16 and earning a six-seed in this event with an 8-10 league ledger. The Eagles closed the regular season with three straight losses, but knocked off USC Upstate (87-74) and Mercer (62-58) to reach the championship game. This is Florida Gulf Coast's first appearance in a Division I postseason tournament after sitting out the last four seasons due to the NCAA Division I transition period.
The Bruins made light work of the Eagles this year, sweeping the regular- season series with a pair of routs, posting a 95-53 decision at home on Jan. 16, and an 86-63 victory at Florida Gulf Coast on Feb. 11.
Despite simply treading water both in and out of the conference, Florida Gulf Coast is efficient, coming into the postseason shooting a healthy .458 from the floor. That being said, there isn't a great deal of depth, with Sherwood Brown and Bernard Thompson representing the top offensive threats, finishing the regular season with scoring averages of 12.8 and 11,8 ppg, respectively.
Florida Gulf Coast got 14 points from Brown and 13 from Christopher Varidel in edging out Mercer in semifinal action on Friday. The Eagles, who shot a modest .438 from the floor in the game, also received nine points from both Chase Fieler and Brett Comer.
Belmont has overpowered opponents with offensive firepower this season, ranking among the nation's best in scoring (81.5 ppg), field-goal percentage (.484) and scoring margin (+14.2). Four of the team's five starters earned all-conference honors. Senior Drew Hanlen and juniors Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson picked up First-Team recognition, while senior Mick Hedgepeth was named to the Second-Team. Johnson shoot .531 from the floor and leads the team with 14.1 ppg. Clark is a close second at 12.4 ppg, followed by Hanlen and Scott Saunders with 11.1 and 10.3 ppg, respectively.
Belmont used a 9-0 run early in the second half to provide some breathing room, catapulting the Bruins past East Tennessee State and into the title game. The Bruins overcame a sluggish first half to shoot 58 percent from the floor after the break and finished the game converting 12-of-28 from three- point range. Clark hit five three-pointers en route to a team-high 19 points. Johnson added 12 points, while Hanlen finished with nine.
The Bruins just have too many weapons for Florida Gulf Coast to counter. Belmont won the regular-season meetings with ease and while a double-digit win is probably expected once again, expect the Eagles to be a little more competitive.