LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- CJ Fleming scored a career-high 27 points, Dylan Penn added 22 and Division I newcomer Bellarmine defeated Jacksonville 77-72 in the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament final on Tuesday, handing the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament to regular-season champion Jacksonville State.
Bellarmine is not eligible for the NCAA tournament as it is in the second of a four-year transition to Division I. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the Louisville, Kentucky-based school is the first men's team in the past 25 seasons to win its conference tournament while being ineligible for postseason play.
Instead, the Knights became heroes in Jacksonville, Alabama. Top-seeded Jacksonville State fell at home 54-51 to the Jacksonville Dolphins on Saturday, but since Bellarmine is ineligible for the NCAA tournament, the Gamecocks will go dancing.
"We've made it a point to control what we can control, and that's it," Bellarmine senior guard Juston Betz said. "We'll continue to be in the moment and never take for granted where we are."
Bellarmine, a recent Division II power and 2011 champion, defeated Liberty, the other ASUN division champion, 53-50 on the road on Saturday. Jacksonville, which joined the ASUN in 1998, was seeking its first league championship and first NCAA berth in 36 years.
Including its Division II history, this marks Bellarmine's 13th 20-win campaign in the past 14 seasons.
"It's kind of surreal," said Penn, who was named tournament MVP. "It feels like we're in a movie. We weren't supposed to be competing at such a high level this early."
The Knights (20-13) made 11 of 12 free throws in the last two minutes with Fleming perfect on eight, to hold off Jacksonville, which made 5 of 8 field goals, two of them 3s, down the stretch.
Penn, Betz and Curt Hopf hit consecutive 3-pointers to give Bellarmine a 9-4 lead, and Sam DeVault added back-to-back triples as the Knights started red-hot. Penn's layup midway through the first half made it 28-10 with the Knights going 10-of-14, seven of the baskets behind the arc.
Jacksonville battled back to get within 36-26 at the half, despite going 0-of-10 from 3-point range compared to 9-of-16 for Bellarmine.
The Dolphins hit six 3s in the second half and shot 50% but could get no closer than six.
The Knights finished shooting 50% overall and were 12-of-25 from 3-point range and 15-of-17 from the foul line.
"I don't know how any coach at any level of any sport could be more proud than I am," Bellarmine coach Scott Davenport said. "My highlight of this journey is seeing this team celebrate each other. That locker room was one of the highlights of my life."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.