MACON, Ga. - - Belmont men's basketball rallied from a 13-point first half deficit to defeat Florida Gulf Coast, 83-69, Saturday night for its fifth Atlantic Sun Tournament championship and NCAA Tournament automatic bid.
The majority of Belmont's roster experienced championship glory at the University Center in Macon, Ga. a year ago as part of a 30-5 team, and the Bruins were ready to improve the program's all-time record to 5-0 in conference finals.
Amazingly, Belmont's trek to championship Saturday proved reminiscent of a year ago. The steady Bruins earned a regular season conference championship and a No. 1 tournament seed.
Taken further, the 2011 Bruins earned a 15-point quarterfinal victory (Kennesaw State) and an eight-point semifinal victory (Mercer) en route to the finals against a talented six-seed from the state of Florida making its first conference tournament appearance (North Florida).
This season, the 2012 Bruins earned a 14-point quarterfinal victory (Jacksonville) and an eight-point semifinal victory (ETSU) before facing the sixth-seeded Eagles, who had been most impressive in victories over 20-win programs USC Upstate and host Mercer.
For Bruin fans who desired the trend to continue - namely something approaching Belmont's 87-46 victory in the 2011 Atlantic Sun final - FGCU had other ideas.
After two opening free throws from senior Mick Hedgepeth (Crossville, Ala.), Filip Cvjeticanin scored eight consecutive point to give FGCU a 10-4 lead four minutes in.
Early point-blank misses hurt the Bruins, as several interior shots rimmed off.
Brett Comer had a hand in all 11 points (three baskets, two assists) during an 11-0 FGCU run which gave the Eagles a 26-15 lead 11 minutes in.
Baskets from Clark, Jenkins, and a tip-in from sophomore J.J. Mann (Smyrna, Ga.) momentarily stemmed the tide, but the deficit grew to 13, 35-22, on two Comer free throws with 6:19 left in the half.
The 13 point deficit was Belmont's largest since trailing by the same amount Dec. 19 at Marshall.
It may have been surprising to some, considering Belmont had defeated FGCU by a combined 65 points in two regular season victories and had won its last three Atlantic Sun Tournament finals by a combined 86 points.
But Byrd's direction, elevated defense and dead-eye shooting of Clark helped Belmont end the half on a 10-2 run over the final 3:56 of the half to close within 42-39 at the break.
In fact, Clark hit a clutch three-pointer right before the first half buzzer sounded to cut the margin in half.
Belmont shot 39 percent (13-for-33) in the first half - including 5-for-13 from three-point distance. After shouldering 12-for-18 shooting from FGCU to open the game, the Eagles went 4-for-14 to end the half.
Clark's production was extremely significant, scoring 14 first half points.
Though Bernard Thompson would make a floater to open the second half, Belmont continued to build on momentum gained at the end of the first half. A three-pointer from Jenkins and two free throws from Hedgepeth tied the score at 44 with 18:24 left.
Following a defensive stop, senior Drew Hanlen (St. Louis, Mo.) buried a straight-on three-pointer to give Belmont a 47-44 lead - its first lead since 2-0.
FGCU steadied itself behind solid play from Kevin Cantinol. Leading 51-50, Belmont received another huge spark from Baker. The reserve forward triggered two straight fast break baskets with runouts and gave the Bruins a 58-50 lead with 10:28 left.
But Comer did his best to keep the Eagles in it. A wing three-pointer cut Belmont's lead to 59-55 with 9:05 remaining.
From there, the Bruins hammered the ball inside, as Jenkins capped a key 9-0 run with a driving layin that made the score 68-55 with 7:00 left.
Belmont would lead by double figures thereafter, highlighted by a memorable three-pointer from junior Kerron Johnson (Huntsville, Ala.) with 1:07 left that gave the Bruins an 83-66 lead.
All told, Belmont shot 47 percent (27-for-58) from the field - including 8-for-21 from three-point distance. The Bruins shot 56 percent in the second half, this on the heels of 58 percent second half shooting in Friday's semifinal victory.
The Bruins outrebounded FGCU, 44-30, and held the Eagles to 32 percent second half shooting.
Clark led five Bruins in double figures with 16 points and six rebounds. Jenkins added 15 points. Johnson recorded his second career double-double with 14 points, a career-high 11 rebounds and five assists. Hedgepeth had his eighth career double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds, while Saunders scored 12.
Comer led FGCU (15-17) with 20 points.
Belmont held FGCU sharpshooter Christophe Varidel scoreless on 0-for-6 shooting, and held Cvjeticanin scoreless the final 27 minutes after his torrid start.
Johnson was named Atlantic Sun Tournament MVP and Clark was named to the All-Tournament Team.
Belmont joins Kansas and Memphis as the only programs in the nation to earn five NCAA Tournament automatic bids since 2006 (Duke and Gonzaga have chance to join next week).
The Bruins went 41-3 in Atlantic Sun Conference games the last two seasons.
Belmont (27-7) has won 14 consecutive games, and will await its NCAA Tournament seed and opponent on Selection Sunday, Mar. 10.
An on-campus Selection Sunday celebration within the Beaman Student Life Center is expected. More details will be provided in the coming days.