Belmont's basketball team has been the hunted all season. They were the new kids on the OVC block.
They left the Atlantic Sun Conference with a boat-load of championship trophies and trips to the NCAA Tournament.
But OVC teams were not going to give the Bruins a free pass to this year's Big Dance. They were going to have to earn it.
Tennessee State had split regular season games with their cross-town rival and the Tigers had the size, quickness, the physicality needed to derail the regular season champions.
“I thought about the game all day,'' Belmont Coach Rick Byrd admitted. “They are very talented. They play hard and try to do the things their coach asks them to do.''
Byrd knew TSU was going to be a tough out and he was spot on in his thinking.
Belmont was 0 for 10 from the 3-point line in the first half. The Bruins only hit 12 of 33 shots in the first 20 minutes. Yet they managed to eke out a 32-29 lead at intermission.
The Bruins got down to brass tacks in the second half, regaining their shooting eye and retained the lead, coming out with an 82-73 semifinal win that propels them into Saturday's championship game and an automatic bid to another NCAA Tournament.
“I exhale after every game and I felt like this game was close to a tossup,'' Byrd said after the Bruins improved to 25-6. “They have so many good players. I think our defensive activity at the end of the first half turned the game and in the second half it turned into an offensive show on both sides.''
TSU Coach Travis Williams knew his team fought the good fight. But Belmont just finds ways to right the ship when it's crunch time. TSU could never get that key defensive stop, nor could they hit a clutch shot when they needed to. Instead it was Belmont that got on a run behind the senior guard combination of Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson.
“Belmont came out the second half and made some key shots,'' Williams said after his team finished 18-14 in his first season.
“You can let them get going and Ian Clark got going and Kerron Johnson got going and was able to break us down and kick it out for open shots.''
The Tigers could not overcome 21 turnovers, while Belmont coughed up the ball only 11 times against constant pressure from the Tigers.
Clark, the OVC's co-player of the year, got going from the 3-point line, making six of eight in the decisive second half and scored a game-high 26 points. Johnson chipped in 23 points and dished out seven assists, six in the second half and Clark was the beneficiary.
“Find him. Find him,'' Johnson said of his plan every game to find Clark open for shots. “Give it to him early. He is fun to watch because if he's open, it's got a great chance of going down.''
Johnson knows Saturday's game is for all the marbles.
“We're not playing for an at-large bid. For us this is a win or go home deal,'' the senior from Huntsville said. “When we came here, we had a dinner with former players. We got to talk to them and saw how important this program is to them and we want to carry over that legacy.''
This is the last year for Clark and he knows how important it is to keep the flame burning.
“You want to have that experience and we take pride in the program.
Contact wkrn.com Sports Columnist Joe Biddle at firstname.lastname@example.org.