MACON, Ga. -- Belmont overcame a big scare in its farewell to the Atlantic Sun Conference.
The Bruins trailed by 13 points in the first half Saturday night before recovering to beat the Florida Gulf Coast in the conference title game 83-69 and advance to the NCAA tournament.
"I'd say the last 25 minutes was about as good defensively as we've played all year long," coach Rick Byrd said. "I can't think of any uncontested shot."
The Bruins, who won two lopsided regular-season games over Florida Gulf Coast by a combined margin of 65 points, had to work for this one. With a big deficit, Belmont stepped up its defense late in the first half, to head to the NCAA tournament with a 14-game winning streak following its fifth conference tournament championship in seven years, including the last two.
"It was big for the seniors to leave the conference on a winning streak and on a good note," Clark said.
Belmont started two seniors and two juniors. Florida Gulf Coast, playing under first-year coach Andy Enfield, relied on such freshmen as Brett Comer, who scored 20 points, and Filip Cvjeticanin, who had 13, all in the first half.
The Eagles (15-17) led the tournament's top seed 35-22 in the first half but made only 32.3 percent of their shots (10 of 31) in the second half.
"We kept our turnovers down," Enfield said, noting his team's seven miscues. "I was proud of the way we handled the basketball, but if you don't make shots against Belmont, you're not going to win the basketball game.
"We just wore down a little bit and those shots that normally go in for us just didn't go in for the second half."
Kevin Cantinol also had 13 for the Eagles, the No. 6 seed in their first A-Sun tournament.
Enfield, the former Florida State assistant, emphasized his team wasn't content with the second-place finish.
"It's the first time our school has been eligible to play in this championship," Enfield said. "For the first time, I'm proud of our players.
"We're in this to build a program and win a lot of games. We want to improve in this offseason and I think you'll see a different team come next season."
Florida Gulf Coast faded in the second half after its strong start in its bid to become the first A-Sun team to beat the top three seeds in the tournament. The Eagles advanced to the championship game by beating No. 3 USC Upstate and No. 2 Mercer.
Florida Gulf Coast was denied its attempt to complete a sweep of the day's finals, after the Eagles beat Stetson in the women's tournament championship game.
Following a 15-15 tie, the Eagles scored 11 straight points and kept the lead the remainder of the first half.
"We knew we were in for a game," Johnson said. "They came out and they left it all on the floor. I don't think we were shocked, but I think we responded.
"We just stayed true to what we do and it came out with the win."
Belmont closed the half with a 17-7 run to cut the lead to 42-39 at halftime. Clark, who made each of his four 3-pointers in the half, beat the buzzer with his final 3.
The Bruins kept the momentum, taking a 47-44 lead on Drew Hanlen's 3-pointer about 2 minutes into the second half. The Eagles stayed close, trailing only 51-50, before Belmont pulled away with a 17-5 run.
"We had that sense of urgency that I wish we had started the game with," Hedgepeth said.
Jenkins had a three-point play before scoring again to push the lead to 68-55.
Belmont's last loss was Jan. 21 to USC Upstate.
The Bruins opened the season with a 77-76 loss to Duke, providing a reminder they also lost by one point to the Blue Devils in the 2008 NCAA tournament.
Byrd said Saturday night's game should convince his players that defense is the key to postseason success. He said the Bruins, who lost to Wisconsin 72-58 in the first round last year, can't win in the NCAA "if we can't get stops against the kind of team we're going to play."