To Isiah Brown, the Belmont Bruins all began to morph together Thursday night.
That is what Belmont’s depth can do to opposing teams, and Brown and East Tennessee State were the latest victims.
The Bruins used 12 players (five more than ETSU) and rallied from a nine-point second-half deficit for a 68-58 victory. With the victory, Belmont (24-4, 16-1) clinched a share of the Atlantic Sun Conference regular-season championship and guaranteed itself a No. 1 seed in the conference tournament, which is less than two weeks away. It can win the league title outright with a victory against USC Upstate on Saturday.
Last year the Bruins shared the title with Lipscomb, Jacksonville and Campbell. They were picked by the media and coaches in the preseason polls to finish third in the league this season.
Now the only way they would not win it outright is if ETSU wins its final two games and Belmont loses its last three.
“This is not something I want to share again,” Belmont forward Scott Saunders said.
Added Belmont coach Rick Byrd: “To be able to clinch a tie this early, I’m proud of our kids for that. Nobody picked us. Nobody picked us.”
While Belmont was off offensively, making just 17 baskets and shooting only 32.7 percent — both season lows — its pressing defense smothered ETSU (19-10, 14-4). After 12 first-half points, Brown only got off one shot in the second half. The Buccaneers forward credited a lot of that to the Bruins depth, which he called “amazing.”
“You have no idea,” Brown, who finished with 14 points, said. “It is a huge factor having the rotation that they have. They come in so energized. They make very little mistakes because they are energized. When they run, then all of a sudden, you are like, ‘Oh, crap. The man I was guarding is no longer in here. Which guy I am guarding?’ To me, at times they seem like they are all the same players.”
ETSU led 36-27 fewer than two minutes into the second half, but Belmont rallied thanks to a bevy of free throws. It went 26-of-30 from the line, and attempted 24 after halftime.
The Bruins took their first lead of the game on two free throws by Jon House with 11:58 left. The Bucs stayed close and took a 50-47 lead on a jumper by Mike Smith with 6:56 remaining. On the next possession, Drew Hanlen responded with a 3-pointer from the top of the key. Mick Hedgepeth drew contact under the basket at the same time and knocked down two free throws to give Belmont a two-point lead it did not relinquish. The five-point flurry was the start of 14-1 run capped by Ian Clark’s basket inside for a 61-51 advantage with 2:51 to go.
“We had to keep the heat on them throughout the second half, try to make them tired, try to wear them down,” Clark said.
The Bruins seemed to do that as ETSU had five players who played more than 31 minutes each. The Bucs also ran into foul trouble, with five players committing at least four. Leading scorer Mike Smith wasn’t much of a factor as he finished with 14 points in 38 minutes, fouling out with more than two minutes left.
“The game was intense. They have players that have to play 37 minutes that are just going to get tired,” Byrd said. “How do you measure that? Because you don’t know what it would have been like if we didn’t have our depth.”
Clark finished with 18 points, 10 after halftime. Saunders added 10 points and eight rebounds and made all six free throw attempts.
The trips to the line and a 44-28 rebounding edge made up for a sluggish first half. Belmont entered the game shooting 46.8 percent from the field and averaging 80.8 points — both top marks in the conference — but made just 29.2 percent of their baskets and committed 10 turnovers against ETSU, which won the A-Sun Tournament last year.
“Every game is not going to be a blow-out — that is what we have to know,” Clark said. “We knew coming in that it was going to be a dogfight. They aren’t No. 2 for no reason. So we knew even though we were down at halftime [31-24], we had to keep playing.”
• Belmont improved to 11-0 this season at the Curb Event Center.
• Bryd was honored before the contest — Belmont’s first home game since he picked up his 600th career win on Jan. 30 against Stetson. Byrd, in his 30th year as a head coach, is just one of 12 active coaches to reach the milestone. He is 512-277 in 25 seasons at Belmont.
• Lipscomb’s Josh Slater recorded the first triple-double in the school’s NCAA history as the Bisons defeated USC Upstate 71-52 on Thursday. Slater had 10 points, 12 assists and 10 steals for the first triple-double by an A-Sun player since the 2008-09 season. He broke his own school record for steals — his previous high was eight — and he set a career-high in assists.