Top-seed Belmont rebounded from a shaky first half and pulled away from eighth-seeded Kennesaw State for a 72-57 victory Wednesday in the first round of the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament in Macon, Ga.
The Bruins (28-4) trailed for most of the first half as Kennesaw State (8-23) was up 23-16 with more than seven minutes before halftime. But Belmont closed with a 19-5 run and led 35-28 at intermission.
Mick Hedgepeth made a layup with 17:28 remaining as the Bruins extended their advantage to 43-32 advantage. They led by at least 10 points the rest of the game.
Belmont won the last meeting between the teams 88-41 last Saturday and swept the regular-season series.
“We saw a different team [Wednesday] than we did on Saturday,” Belmont coach Rick Byrd said. “They had a lot of purpose and they made some coaching adjustments that were good. I thought they played hard and at times harder than we did. We don’t think people should be able to play harder for 40 minutes because of our depth. ... I think we need to play better, but again they deserve a lot of credit for that.”
Ian Clark led the Bruins with 14 points and Hedgepeth added 12 points and seven rebounds as Belmont had 11 players score. Markeith Cummings led Kennesaw State with 20 points and seven boards.
Belmont advances to a semifinal game at 5:30 p.m. Friday. The Bruins will plays the winner of Thursday’s quarterfinal between Lipscomb and Mercer.
• Lipscomb limps in: The last two seasons, Lipscomb rolled into the conference tournament.
The Bisons won eight straight at the end of the 2008-09 season and five of their last six a year ago. Both times the momentum failed to carry over. They fell in the second round two seasons ago and last year, after receiving the No. 1 seed and sharing the regular-season championship with three other schools, were knocked off by eighth-seed Kennesaw State in the opening round.
So the way head coach Scott Sanderson looks at it, this year’s less than stellar finish — Lipscomb has lost four of its last seven — might not be a bad thing.
“I really feel like our team has a chip on our shoulder. I can’t say I don’t like it,” he said. “This year we are just kind of floating in there. We are not the same going in there. It remains to be seen how I feel about that. I’ll let you know on Saturday.”
If the Bisons (17-12, 12-8) are still playing on Saturday, that means they will have made it to the championship game. That’s where they expected to be before the season started, and the No. 4 seed still could end up in that spot as it opens the tournament against fifth-seeded and tournament host Mercer at 8 p.m. Thursday. The Bears (14-17, 11-9) edged Lipscomb at home on Saturday in the regular-season finale as the teams split the season series.
The Bisons’ season has not been what they expected. With their top four scorers back from a 17-13 season, they were picked to win the conference by both the coaches and media in the preseason polls.
They never put together consistency, though. Even with a high-scoring offense — Adnan Hodzic (18 points per game) and Josh Slater (16.5 ppg) are in the top four in the league in scoring and the team’s 76.8 points a game rank 26th in the country — they were 7-10 on the road, and missteps on defense continued to be an issue. They ended the regular season allowing 73.8 points a game, which is tied for 296th out of 345 teams.
“It is more just executing what we do. We are still making mistakes on things that we have done back since October,” Sanderson said. “We’ll have spells where we’ll execute very well defensively. Then we’ll go through lapses there and instead of being one or two possessions it might be five or 10 minutes during the course of a game. Those are damaging, especially in our league when so many games come down to one or two or three possessions. That has been a major thing for us this year.”
The season hit rock bottom when Lipscomb lost 88-52 to cross-town rival Belmont. After that, however, the Bisons won five of their next six, including avenging the Belmont loss by edging the Bruins 73-64 at Lipscomb. The Bisons are 8-5 since the Belmont loss — all five losses were by 10 points or fewer.
“That humbled us,” Slater said of the setback at Belmont. “We understood that we weren’t the team that we thought we were going to be at that point. Ever since then, we have won some and lost some. But I thought overall we have been focused. It is just going to be a matter of consistency in the games. If we can get 40 good minutes, then I think we can compete with anyone and beat anyone in the league.
“It is a disappointment because we had such high expectations for the season. But the beautiful thing is it is not over yet. We are going to have the opportunity, just like the seven other teams in the league to get to that next level, something our school has never done. It would be a disappointment if we didn’t make it, especially because we know we are good enough. We know we have the talent to do it.”