People never realize how long and horizontally-encompassing the state of Tennessee is.
From East to West, Tennessee's length is nearly as long as Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi combined. Thus, the first time I found myself on a bus from Belmont to ETSU, I fought boredom for nearly five hours -- and lost. After three hours on I-40, the bus barreled into Knoxville, providing a fleeting moment of hope. "Knoxville...that's East Tennessee...we must be close, right?" Wrong. Very, very wrong. ETSU is an additional two hours northeast on I-81.
But despite the deep geographical differences, Belmont and ETSU once had a venomous rivalry during their time in the Atlantic Sun. Most of it came from two separate games in back-to-back years.
First, Belmont benefited from a boneheaded technical foul in the waning seconds of a comeback victory over the Bucs in the 2008 Atlantic Sun Tournament. It was one of those moments, inside Lipscomb's Allen Arena, that felt like there was something special about that Belmont team. There was something in the stars.
The next year, ETSU was the chosen team, and eliminated the Bruins from the conference tournament in dominating fashion. (The Bucs, arguably the best 16-seed in NCAA tournament history that year, nearly topped 1-seed Pittsburgh a few weeks later.)
Since then, though, Belmont has won the last six games against ETSU, including last night's 80-58 decision.
The homecoming crowd for Belmont was, as they usually are, large and passive. Most Belmont students fill a large portion of bleachers -- and usually stand up for the whole game. But there seems to be a disconnect with the group of Greek organizations -- which are far more organized -- and the rest of the student body. (But hey, it beats the tiny crowds of Saturday night games in the years past -- even after Belmont made three straight NCAA tournaments.)
ETSU coach Murray Bartow spent most of the night exhaling and grabbing his hair as the Bruins dropped in 11 long-balls. The Bucs, down 37-21 at half, continued to play cushy defense and the Bruins capitalized.
The game lacked the effort and intensity of years past. There was no chest-thumping, few opposing ETSU fans in the arena, and a wide final margin.
Aside from a possible meeting in the Atlantic Sun tournament in Macon, the game could prove to be the last matchup between the teams as Belmont preps for a move to the Ohio Valley Conference next year. And what was once a heated rivalry, as last night proved, has faded. The tide has steadied.
Maybe it's time.
at BELMONT 80, EAST TENNESSEE STATE 58 02/18/2012
EAST TENNESSEE STATE 13-13 (7-8) -- S. Cooley 5-13 2-2 13; T. Hubbard 2-7 3-4 7; I. Brown 5-13 2-3 12; A. Sollazzo 3-8 2-4 8; J. Jones 3-8 0-0 7; M. Dubose 3-10 0-0 6; L. Poderis 2-2 0-0 4; R. Rembert 0-2 1-2 1; J. Walton 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-63 10-15 58. BELMONT 21-7 (13-2) -- D. Hanlen 5-12 0-0 15; I. Clark 5-12 4-4 18; B. Jenkins 2-5 8-9 12; M. Hedgepeth 1-1 0-0 2; K. Johnson 4-4 5-7 15; J. Mann 1-5 0-0 2; S. Saunders 3-6 6-9 12; A. Barnes 2-2 0-0 4; T. Noack 0-0 0-0 0; R. Chamberlain 0-1 0-0 0; B. Baker 0-0 0-0 0; S. Cavera 0-0 0-0 0; C. Lang 0-0 0-0 0; H. Mobley 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 23-49 23-29 80.
Three-point goals: ETSU 2-10 (J. Jones 1-4; S. Cooley 1-2; R. Rembert 0-1; M. Dubose 0-3), BELM 11-28 (D. Hanlen 5-11; I. Clark 4-11; K. Johnson 2-2; R. Chamberlain 0-1; J. Mann 0-2; H. Mobley 0-1); Rebounds: ETSU 34 (T. Hubbard 11), BELM 33 (B. Jenkins 12); Assists: ETSU 10 (I. Brown 3), BELM 20 (D. Hanlen 6); Total Fouls -- ETSU 20, BELM 14; Fouled Out: ETSU-S. Cooley; BELM-None.