The Belmont women’s basketball team’s (25-6, 16-2 A-Sun) motto all season was “One Goal: NCAA.” On Saturday, the Bruins accomplished that goal and knocked off third-seeded ETSU (20-11, 14-4 A-Sun), 69-57, in the finals of the Atlantic Sun Championship to claim their first ever conference title and advance to the NCAA Tournament.
The pace was feverish and aggressive as both teams looked to get on the board first. Freshman Shaunda Strayhorn (Dyersburg, Tenn.) put up Belmont’s first points from the charity stripe and was followed by a jumper from A-Sun All-Freshman Team selection Tereva Moore (Memphis, Tenn.). Atlantic Sun Freshman of the Year Siarre Evans nailed her first three pointer of the game to get the Lady Bucs on the board at the 18:26 mark. A trip to the free-throw line by Atlantic Sun Player of the Year sophomore Alysha Clark (Mt. Juliet, Tenn.) put Belmont up, 7-3. ETSU slipped into a drought that lasted almost five minutes before TaRonda Wiles batted in the paint for a lay-up that moved the team to within two, 9-7.
Back-to-back lay-ups by Latisha Belcher knotted the score at 11 with just over eight and a half minutes remaining before the break. ETSU briefly took the lead with a jumper by Belcher but a bucket from downtown by Strayhorn put BU back on top, 16-14. Kelly Thurman was sent to the line, hitting both, to help the Lady Bucs regain the lead but sophomore Jessica Bobbitt (Trenton, Tenn.) hit a pretty spin around jumper deep in the paint to knot the game at 18 with just under five minutes left in the first half.
The teams continued the back and forth battle until the final minute of the first stanza. Bobbitt knocked down her third and fourth blocks of the half at ETSU’s end before grabbing a rebound and sending the ball down the court to set Belmont up to take the final shot of the game. Strayhorn was fouled with 20 ticks on the clock and drilled both at the line to put the Bruins ahead by three. A final shot by the Lady Bucs was wide and the teams headed into the locker rooms with Belmont up, 24-21.
Belmont finished the first half with eight blocks, just two away from tying the conference record.
Strayhorn drove to the basket with Belmont’s first possession and opened up a 9-2 run that put the Bruins up, 33-26. The Lady Bucs chipped away at the Bruins’ growing lead until they inched within three with a triple by Wiles with 13:48 remaining in the game. A three-point play by Brooke Wilhoit moved ETSU to within one but Moore hit a fall-away jumper to put Belmont back on top by three, 38-35.
Belmont blew its lead up to six, 41-35, with one of Atlantic Sun All-Freshman Team selection Amber Rockwell’s (Tuscaloosa, Ala.) trademark NBA range three pointers at the 10 minute mark. Devin Thompson made it a four point game with a pair of free throws 15 seconds later. Back-to-back jumpers by Thurman knotted the game at 41 before redshirt freshman Kristin Bunch (Fayetteville, Ga.) drilled a trey to put the Bruins back on top by one, 44-43.
With just five minutes left, BU continued to hold off the surging Lady Bucs. Clark was sent to the charity stripe three times in two minutes, hitting five of the six attempts. Clark finally was able to penetrate the paint for a lay-up without being fouled and put the Bruins up, 55-45. Belmont began to play with the clock and step up its defensive effort. With just 90 ticks left in regulation, Strayhorn nailed a monster three pointer near the top of the key to help put the game out of the Lady Bucs’ reach. A heave from deep behind the three-point arc by Wilhoit with 40 seconds left would be ETSU’s last field goal of the game. Belmont would be sent to the line four times in the last 30 seconds and go on to win the game, 69-57.
Bobbitt, Strayhorn and Clark were all named to the All-Tournament team and Clark received Most Valuable Player honors.
Belmont will await the announcement of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee on Monday night. It will mark the first time since 1999 that the men’s and women’s teams from the same school have advanced to the NCAA Tournament.