Atlantic Sun Tournament Final Preview

by Matthew Stevens | March 3rd, 2007

#2 Belmont (22-9) at #1 East Tennessee State (23-8)

284 miles separates the two schools that will decide a conference tournament championship and an NCAA Tournament bid Saturday afternoon. Needless to say both programs know each other well and understand what a win would mean.

“We talk about it all the time but 40 minutes [times] five guys equals 200 minutes,” Belmont head coach Rick Byrd said. “We need 200 minutes of effort tomorrow.”

Currently, Bracketography.com has ETSU seeded as a 16-seed in its most recently-updated bracket.

The defending champion Belmont Bears (22-9, 14-4) will try to make it back-to-back trips to the big dance but to do so they must beat 2007 regular season champion East Tennessee State on its home floor.

“We know they earned it and yet it’s down to one game,” Byrd said. “Because they won it doesn’t put any points on the board for them.

The last time Belmont was on this floor to play the host Buccaneers (23-8, 16-2), the Bears escaped the stunned Memorial Center with a comeback 75-74 overtime win on Jan. 2.

The Bruins had five players in double figures in that game but ETSU responded to beat Belmont in Nashville 80-70 nearly a month later.

In a true contrast of styles, Belmont (a private Baptist school) relies on a half-court, balanced attack and suffocating defense. The Bruins are led by an inside-out combo of junior guard Justin Hare (14.4 ppg, 45 FG%, 37 3PT%) and 6-foot-11 senior center Boomer Herndon (11 ppg, 5 rpg, 63 FG%). Byrd gives 10 players at least 10 minutes per game so any of that rotation is lethal on a given night.

ETSU, the public school in the smaller town, likes to pick up the tempo and features the league’s best player. Sophomore guard Courtney Pigram was named conference player of the year last week after averaging nearly 18 points per game this season. The Memphis native overcame an 0-for-5 start from the field in the semifinal Friday against Lipscomb but ended the evening with a team-high 21 points.

“He’s getting used to taking over games,” Bartow said after the win. “He keeps saying ‘get me the ball’ and I’m smart enough to get him the ball.”

Buccaneers’ head coach Murray Bartow couldn’t be more confident heading into the biggest game of the season.

“I think we’ve proven we’re the best team in the league; we’ve been saying that all year long,” Bartow said. “We’ll play a great game tomorrow. I’m not saying we’ll win (but) we’ve had a great year no matter what happens tomorrow.”

The x-factor for ETSU will be the 14,000-seat dome arena and getting that building as loud as possible. When Belmont won conference tournament last season, they did it in the same building, but with a much less partisan crowd. A repeat trip to the dance would mean Belmont had survived a completely different and hostile environment.

–Matthew Stevens

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