It sure looked like tonight would be more of the same. The OVC has arguably had three tiers all season: Belmont, the triumverate of Morehead State, Eastern Kentucky and Murray State, and then everyone else. Thusfar, the tournament had played out according to that hierarchy, and the first game showed no signs of changing that.
#1 Belmont 86, #4 Morehead State 63
I mentioned in the preview that the Ohio Valley's best teams, but especially the Belmont Bruins, make a living on being extremely efficient on offense. We knew coming into this game that it was a bit of a mismatch, as in their two earlier meetings this season even the Eagles' best performance wasn't enough to win. The same was true tonight, except that Morehead didn't have their best, and Belmont did, which meant a blowout.
The Bruins were 10-for-19 from three-point range at one point before missing four of their last five during the garbage time that wound down this game, but judging by the hangdog expression on the Morehead players' faces, especially after a 13-5 run by the Bruins that put the final nail in the coffin.
J.J. Mann led the Bruins with 16 points and was one of five Belmont players to reach double digits, while the Eagles got 15 points each from Angelo Warner and Brent Arrington.
But then something interesting happened in the second game, and the anticipated rematch of last season's conference tournament final was ruined...
#3 Eastern Kentucky 86, #2 Murray State 83
It has been the running narrative of the Racers' season that this was supposed to be, if not a rebuilding, then at least a retooling year. Without Ed Daniel and Isaiah Canaan, a new group had to step up and take charge, and Cameron Payne has done exactly that this season. Even with that happening, there were a couple of clear flaws with this Murray State team:
- Cameron Payne's aggressive, fearless play is the best and worst thing about him, and the Racers just have to work around it because he is their best player
- They are absolutely atrocious from the free throw line (.651, T-323 nationally), which is murder in a close game
It usually helps to play another imperfect team in the form of the Eastern Kentucky Colonels, but they were absolutely on tonight. They missed six of their last 11 field goals in the first half, but still shot 65% from the field in that span. The Racers couldn't stay out of foul trouble, couldn't keep Glenn Cosey from making threes, and couldn't keep Eric Stutz from racking up 10 first half points, largely on screen-and-roll dives to the basket as Eastern Kentucky led 46-37 at halftime.
EKU played like a team with a purpose - you know, the way they should play every night - and dictated the pace throughout. They played like a team who was picked to win the conference way back in the preseason. Corey Walden even got three alley-oops during this game; it's not easy to even get one, let alone multiple alley-oop dunks for your point guard unless you are running a smooth offense, and the Colonels were.
Payne, on the other hand, certainly showed both his skills and his limitations, as he racked up 14 first half points, but also turned the ball over five times - and then went to the bench with his fourth foul at the 13-minute mark, long before he scored another point. T.J. Sapp turned the ball over four times of his own before halftime, as the Racers met their season average (12.5 turnovers) by intermission.
While Eastern paced their way to a near double-digit lead most of the game, you knew they weren't that much better than the Racers, and the score eventually evened out, as a three from Dexter Fields cut the score to 72-66 with just under seven minutes remaining, followed by a pair of free throws from Jonathan Fairell, of all people.
After a back and forth affair, Sapp drilled a three from the near wing to tie the score at 79-79 with 1:31 left to play... and then Fields got smoked and Corey Walden completed an and-one to push the lead right back to three. That was all she wrote.
I'll give credit to Payne for playing the last eight minutes of the game and not only not fouling out, but pushing his way to 22 points for the game, and cutting the turnovers kept the Racers in the game, but they just couldn't dig out of that first half hole.
Walden's team and game-high 24 points will push the Colonels into tomorrow's final against Belmont with the auto-bid on the line. The game will air on ESPN2 at 7 p.m. Eastern.