MACON, Ga. - - Behind balanced scoring and timely hustle plays, Belmont men's basketball defeated Mercer, 80-72, Friday night in the Atlantic Sun Tournament Semifinals.
Belmont trailed by five points early, before riding strong defense and shooting from senior Jordan Campbell (Indianapolis, Ind.) to seize the lead.Three-pointers from Campbell and sophomore Kerron Johnson gave the Bruins their first lead of 11-10 with 13:45 left in the first half.
From there, Belmont would use strong inside play from junior Mick Hedgepeth (Crossville, Ala.) to maintain the lead. Consecutive perimeter baskets from Justin Cecil put Mercer back ahead, 23-20, with 8:26 left in the first half.
As expected, it was a fiercely-contested game, with support from Bruin fans rivaling cheers from the partisan home Mercer crowd.
Mercer went ahead 27-24 on a Bud Thomas layin, before Campbell sparked a Bruin spurt to end the first half.
Eight points from Campbell, plus strong free throw shooting from Hedgepeth and a baseline three-pointer from freshman Blake Jenkins (Knoxville, Tenn.) enabled Belmont to close the half on a 17-3 run and take a 41-30 lead at halftime.
Belmont shot 46 percent (11-for-24) in the opening 20 minutes - including 7-for-17 from three-point distance. The Bruins forced nine Mercer turnovers in the first half.
But a three-pointer from Langston Hall and six points from Jake Gollon got Mercer within 49-44 with 14:32 left.
The Bruins would then receive huge contirbutions from sophomores Kerron Johnson (Huntsville, Ala.) and Brandon Baker (Milford, Ohio) and freshman J.J. Mann (Smyrna, Ga.) midway through the second half.
Johnson scored eight points and tallied two steals, Baker had a huge offensive rebound putback and Mann buried a baseline three-pointer as the Bruins used a 15-7 run to lead 64-51 with 7:57 left.
Both teams would earn their way to the free throw line in the second half, with the host Bears inching closer with made throws and plays from Brian Mills and Gollon.
A layin from Baker off an inbounds play steadied the Bruins, making the score 68-60 with 4:25 left.
But uncharacteristic missed free throws hurt Belmont as Mercer trimmed the margin.
Two free throws from Mills got Mercer within 68-65 with 3:07 left, but Belmont got defensive stops and free throws from Johnson and Campbell to push the lead back to six with 1:36 left.
After Mills scored inside, senior Jon House (Guelph, Ont., Canada) scored on the offensive glass to give Belmont a 73-67 lead with 53 seconds left.
Belmont went 7-for-8 from the free throw line in the final 43 seconds to secure the victory.
All told, Belmont shot 44 percent (22-for-50) from the field - including 8-for-24 from three-point distance. The Bruins outrbounded Mercer, 35-27, and claimed 10 steals.
Campbell led four Bruins in double figures with 17 points. Johnson scored 14 points, while Hedgepeth added 11 points and nine rebounds.
Clark scored 10 points.
All 11 Bruins who played scored.
Mills led Mercer (15-18) - which closed the season winning nine of its final 13 games - with 21 points.
With the victory, Belmont becomes the first team in the nation to record 29 victories on the season. Belmont also has 17 road/neutral court victories this season.
Belmont (29-4) will play in the Atlantic Sun Championship Saturday versus North Florida. Tip-off is set for 5pm CT.
The game will be broadcast live on ESPN2 and the Bruin Sports Network.