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Don’t forget about Belmont in the muddled OVC race

Bruins avenge Murray State, Austin Peay losses in 48-hour span

NCAA Basketball Tournament - First Round - Jacksonville
Belmont point guard Grayson Murphy and the Bruins are back in OVC contention.
Photo by Matt Marriott/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Belmont men’s basketball team had to win.

After back-to-back losses at Ohio Valley Conference frontrunners Murray State and Austin Peay in late January, the Bruins fell behind in the race for the regular-season conference title.

Fast forward two weeks and the Bruins are right back in the mix.

Belmont beat Murray State 71-64 on Thursday and topped Austin Peay 71-63 on Saturday, avenging their previous defeats with two crucial victories at the Curb Event Center.

“I think it was a determination to win as much as anything else,” Belmont head coach Casey Alexander said. “Sometimes those things just even themselves out anyway. We showed a lot of fight and a lot of belief, and I think that’s the biggest reason why we won.”

At least four teams — Murray State (11-1), Austin Peay (10-2), Belmont (9-3) and Eastern Kentucky (9-3) — remain firmly in the hunt for the top seed in the OVC Tournament. Tennessee State (7-5) could play spoiler or even vault itself back into contention with a hot finish over the next three weeks.

“I would say [the OVC] is a conference that you never know who’s going to win it,” Belmont point guard Grayson Murphy said. “Everyone is going to give you their best every night. Just playing to the best of our abilities every night is always key.”

The coveted No. 1 and 2 seeds in the OVC tournament offer byes to the semifinals, while the No. 3 and 4 seeds must first win quarterfinal matchups. Seeds 5-8 are tasked with winning four games in four days to capture the conference crown.

That’s why Belmont (18-7 overall) had to have wins against Murray State and Austin Peay. A loss in either contest would have likely ended their shot at skipping to the OVC semifinals – just two steps away from an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 16 Belmont at Boston College
Belmont coach Casey Alexander is trying to lead his team to the Big Dance in his first year at the helm.
Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“We had zero margin for error coming into this series,” Alexander said. “Finishing first or second seems to be better than any other alternative. You just try to win every game and see what that does for you.”

Despite its January struggles, Belmont showed that it can make a run in what has proved to be a challenging league. The Bruins have beaten each of the other three main contenders once and still have a shot at Eastern Kentucky and two chances against Tennessee State, the first of which comes at home on Thursday, Feb. 13.

Belmont grades well on paper. The Bruins rank first in the OVC in average scoring (80.6), margin of victory (12), three-point field goals made per game (10.1), total rebounds per game (38.3) and assist to turnover ratio (1.51). They also own the league’s best NET ranking at No. 116.

Adam Kunkel (16.9 PPG), Nick Muszynski (15.2 PPG), Tyler Scanlon (12.8 PPG) and Grayson Murphy (9.2 PPG) make up the bulk of Belmont’s high-powered offense, which sits just outside of the top 100 in adjusted offensive efficiency, or points scored per 100 possessions.

That group is trying to put the Bruins back in the Big Dance for the second straight year. Belmont secured an at-large bid and beat Temple in the First Four for its first-ever NCAA Tournament victory last season.

But that won’t be the route this year. Belmont’s NET ranking is well out of at-large territory.

The OVC will be a one-bid league, and it could be the Bruins that come out on top.

Or the Racers. Or the Govs. Or the Colonels. Or even the Tigers.

“We need to ride the momentum,” Alexander said. “These games should inspire confidence and belief in what we’re doing and reassure us that we’re as good of a team as anybody in this league, regardless of what the standings look like.”