NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Latisha Belcher wanted to redshirt this season because of her injured knees. Instead she's headed to the NCAA tournament with an Atlantic Sun Most Valuable Player award in hand.
Belcher had 24 points and eight rebounds to lead East Tennessee State to its first NCAA tournament berth with a 75-72 win over Jacksonville in the Atlantic Sun tournament championship on Saturday.
The sophomore center, who played through pain in her sore knees this season, was all smiles after the win.
"It's rewarding because all those aches and pains, blood, sweat and tears paid off," she said.
TaRonda Wiles added 11 points and nine rebounds, and Siarre Evans had 10 points for top-seeded ETSU (21-11), which led by as many as 18 points early in the second half.
Lady Buccaneers coach Karen Kemp, sporting a fresh white championship T-shirt with her players, said she never thought they would lose the game but admitted she was worried.
"I don't know if I've ever been this excited," Kemp said. "We're going to the NCAA tournament ... I don't care if we play Connecticut or Tennessee or whomever they match us up with."
Courtney Jackson's 3-pointer with 2:16 left brought Jacksonville to within a point at 68-67, and the teams traded baskets in an fast-pace finish.
Jacksonville had one final chance to tie the game, but Regina Omoite turned it over as time expired.
While ETSU players and coaches danced at midcourt and cut down the nets as part of the award ceremony, Jacksonville (23-9) players held back tears during the post-game press conference.
"It's tough," Dolphins guard Virginia Gregoire said. "I wish I had been there for my teammates in the first half the way I was there in the second half."
Ashley Williams led the Dolphins with 21 points, Courtney Jackson scored 15 and Gregoire had 14 points.
The Lady Bucs had failed in their first four tries in conference championship games, including last season's 69-57 loss to Belmont.
They didn't let this chance go to waste.
With a winter storm dumping heavy snow outside Lipscomb's Allen Arena, ETSU piled it on Jacksonville early.
The undersized Dolphins couldn't contain the 6-foot-1 presence of Belcher, who scored 15 of her 24 points in the opening half on her way to being named the tournament's Most Valuable Player. On the defensive end, the sophomore center clogged the middle and didn't allow second-chance opportunities for Jacksonville.
The Dolphins changed the tempo to a fast-pace game in the second half to counter ETSU's size, and it nearly worked.
Courtney Jackson's layup with about 7:30 left tightened the game to 60-52 for Jacksonville. But costly turnovers and late fouls crushed any hopes of a comeback -- and the Dolphins' first NCAA tournament berth.
Kelly Turman's jumper gave the Lady Bucs a 40-24 lead after a first half that they held Jacksonville to 23 percent shooting from the floor.
The win was also the eighth straight for the Lady Bucs, their longest winning streak of the season. It was also the first time the top two seeds met in the title game since 2002.