Belmont eviscerates North Florida to win Atlantic Sun tournament, NCAA berth

Associated Press
Saturday, March 5, 2011; 10:44 PM

MACON, Ga. -- Mark Hedgepeth scored 23 points and had nine rebounds as top-seeded Belmont earned a berth in the NCAA tournament with an 87-46 victory over North Florida in the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament championship game Saturday night.

Belmont (30-4) won its fourth Atlantic Sun title in six years and set the conference's record for most wins in a season. The Bruins, who previously won the tournament from 2006-08, also set the conference tournament mark for margin of victory.

"I don't really know what to say about this team. Thirty wins was just not even thought about," Belmont coach Rick Byrd said. "For guys to agree and play as hard as they can for you in a new system, that we all just kind of fell into this year, is so unselfish. It takes a level of unselfishness for guys one through 12 or 13 to all do that and do it without complaint.

"I couldn't coach a better team."

Reserve Scott Saunders scored 15 points for Belmont, while Ian Clark added 10 points.

Brad Haugabrook had 10 points to lead North Florida (15-19), the tournament's sixth seed who upset third-seeded Jacksonville and second-seeded East Tennessee State in the first two rounds.

"Defensively, they were just really denying us the ball, and we weren't able to move it side to side like we usually do," said Parker Smith, North Florida's leading scorer. "They just stopped any scoring that we usually get in transition, and that put us in our halfcourt sets all night. We are a good halfcourt team, but we like to score points in transition, so that made it very frustrating. They just played great team defense."

Belmont shot 36 of 71 from the floor and dominated throughout, taking a 39-21 lead at halftime.

The conference's previous mark for margin of victory was 28, set twice: in 1989, when Arkansas-Little Rock defeated Centenary 100-72; and in 1999, when Samford beat Central Florida 89-61.

Belmont also improved to 6-0 as the Atlantic Sun's No. 1 seed. Since 2002, Belmont is the only team to win the tournament as the top seed after also winning in 2008.

"In the tournament, probably when he wanted to keep some guys in, he stuck to the system, and I think it really helps us in the long run," Clark said of the team's depth. "It will help us in the tournament as well seeing as other teams probably won't sub as much as our system, and it could help us in the last minutes of the game in a big game in the NCAA tournament."

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