JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. -- Belmont coach Rick Byrd was stunned as he watched his players drain 3-pointer after 3-pointer.
Andy Wicke and Andrew Preston had 18 points apiece and the Bruins made 12 3s in the first half en route to winning their second straight Atlantic Sun Conference tournament championship and NCAA bid with a 94-67 victory over East Tennessee State on Saturday."That was beyond our wildest dreams right there," said Byrd, who's in his 21st year at Belmont. "I think it's the best game that any Belmont team that I've coached has played -- certainly the best half."Belmont (23-9) earned the school's first trip to the NCAA Tournament last year and lost to eventual national runner-up UCLA in the first round.Reserve Justin Hare, the tournament MVP two years in a row, scored 17 points for the Bruins. Boomer Herndon added 10 points.Wicke made five of 11 3-pointers. Preston also grabbed 10 rebounds and went 8-of-12 at the foul line.ETSU (24-9) won the Atlantic Sun regular-season title but couldn't keep up with Belmont, a small private school in Nashville, on its home court."Our worst fears came true in terms of their 3-point shooters being hot," ETSU coach Murry Bartow said. "They got some good looks early in the game and just played incredibly well."ETSU's Courtney Pigram, the conference player of the year, scored 21 points. Andrew Reed added 13 and Mike Smith had 11.The Bruins built a big lead in the first half by shooting 12-of-19 from long range. They had averaged a league-high 8.65 3-pointers a game and finished the game with 14.It was tied at 8 when Belmont put together a 9-0 run -- all 3-pointers -- and started to pull away.Afterward, the Buccaneers got as close as seven in the first half, but Belmont stretched its lead to 49-30 at halftime after Hare's desperation 3 at the buzzer went in."I don't know how many flurries of 3s there were in the first half, but when they were going down one after the other ... I couldn't believe it, and what I was thinking was 'this isn't going to last," Byrd said.The Bruins' lead hovered around 20 most of the second half and dipped as low as 14 with 4:52 left after Pigram made consecutive baskets, but ETSU could not sustain a long rally."The second half we really thought we could come back and win. I thought we had a good halftime," Bartow said. "We felt like if we could get it to single digits that with the crowd being into the game, we felt like we'd have a chance."Belmont, most known for its music school, had one of its biggest supporters at the game -- country music star Vince Gill.In last year's NCAA Tournament, the Bruins were sent out to San Diego as a 15th seed and lost 78-44 to UCLA.Byrd and his players hope last year's experience will help this time around."I think the first time, you're shocked," Hare said. "We're going to go try and be more competitive."Byrd said he hoped to get a higher seed this year, and he's already thinking of a game plan."We've got time. We may put in a whole new offense. Try to get that out there if you would," he told reporters and then laughed.Including last year's regular season and tournament, Belmont has won eight straight in the Memorial Center, ETSU's former indoor football dome stadium.Belmont handed ETSU its only regular-season home loss this season, 75-74 in overtime. The teams' other meeting in Nashville also went into overtime, but the Bucs won 80-70.The Bucs have been to the NCAAs seven times, the last as members of the Southern Conference in 2004. They joined the Atlantic Sun after the school folded its football program.