The Belmont women’s basketball team (24-6, 16-2 A-Sun) moved one step closing to its first ever NCAA Tournament berth on Friday night in Dothan, Ala. The top-seeded Bruins held off fourth-seeded Gardner-Webb (15-16, 10-8 A-Sun), 57-48, and advanced to the finals of the Atlantic Sun Tournament for the first time in program history.
The Bruins opened the game with a quick 5-0 with a jumper from sophomore Jessica Bobbitt (Trenton, Tenn.) and a three pointer by junior Brittany Myers (Madison, Ind.). A triple from redshirt freshman Kristin Bunch (Fayetteville, Ga.) saw Belmont go up, 8-4. Gardner-Webb began to surge with back-to-back trips to the free-throw line but the Bruins kept up their rhythm. Three consecutive blocks in the paint by Bobbitt led to redshirt freshman Amber Rockwell (Tuscaloosa, Ala.) drilling a triple to put BU up by 10, 18-8, by the 9:43 mark. A frustrated GWU bench called a timeout, attempting to put together a plan to handle the hot hands of the Bruins.
The Bulldogs moved to within five behind a three by Jenny Sprouse and a shot from Candyse Kelly with less than seven minutes left before the break. Belmont continued to pile on the points, taking advantage of a Gardner-Webb drought that lasted over three and a half minutes, until it regained its 10 point lead, 27-17, with 3:46 left on the clock. The Bulldogs’ drought was finally halted with a pair of free throws by Kelly and Brittany Boyce netted a three pointer that moved GWU to within seven, 29-22, with 68 ticks on the clock. With 35.2 seconds left, Kelly found the bottom of the net in traffic again to inch Gardner-Webb to within five, 29-24, as the teams headed to the locker rooms.
Belmont dominated in rebounds in the first stanza, 27-12, and Bobbitt racked up four blocks.
Freshman Shaunda Strayhorn (Dyersburg, Tenn.) netted the Bruins’ first five points of the second half, including a trey from the left corner, to put Belmont back on top by 10, 34-24, and a strong defensive effort from her teammates kept the Bulldogs off the scoreboard for more than six minutes. Finally, a jumper by Kelly halted the stalemate and gave GWU its first points of the half.
The Bulldogs attempted to rally behind the foul shooting of Shameka Smith, who hit four of six at the line, but Belmont continued its defensive onslaught with blocks and steals. By the nine minute mark, the Bruins had blown their lead up to 16 points, 49-33. Gardner-Webb attempted to chip away at Belmont’s lead from behind the arc, draining two triples to compliment floor shots from Smith and Sprouse. A three pointer by Boyce with only 1:32 left in regulation moved the Bulldogs to within nine, 57-48. However, the Bruins were able to use the clock to their advantage and hold on for the win with the same score.
Gardner-Webb shot a chilly 28.3 percent (15-53) from the floor, 50 percent (6-12) from three-point range and 66.7 percent (12-18) from the free-throw line. The Bulldogs also held the slim advantage in steals, 5-4.
The Bulldogs only had one player reach double figures – Boyce, who scored 11 points. Smith recorded nine points and nine rebounds.
Belmont shot 33.9 percent (19-56) from the floor, 40 percent (8-20) from beyond the three-point arc, and 78.6 percent (11-14) from the charity stripe. The Bruins dominated in boards, 48-32, blocks, 8-2, and assists, 13-8.
Strayhorn led the Bruins in scoring with a game-high 13 points. Sophomore Alysha Clark (Mt. Juliet, Tenn.) picked up her 18th double-double of the season with 12 points and 13 rebounds. Bobbitt pulled down 10 rebounds in the effort. She also broke the A-Sun Tournament record for blocks in a single game with a total of eight and matched her career-high.
Belmont returns to action on Saturday afternoon in the finals of the Atlantic Sun Tournament against the winner of the two-seeded Jacksonville and three-seeded ETSU game. Tip off is slated for 1 p.m. and the game will be broadcast live on CSS.