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Conference tournament recap: Utah State and Belmont punch tickets to the NCAA Tournament

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Those two championship games highlighted a crowded slate of buzzer-beaters, NMTC disappointments and two epic 40-point performances after midnight.

Mountain West Conference Basketball Tournament - San Diego State v Utah State Photo by Joe Buglewicz/Getty Images

Two down, 30 to go.

Utah State and Belmont punched their tickets to the NCAA Tournament on Saturday by winning the Mountain West Championship and the OVC Championship games, respectively. Neither game disappointed — and, thankfully, both games didn’t have a ton of overlap. Aggie great Sam Merrill and former Boston University Terrier-turned-Belmont Bruin Tyler Scanlon made go-ahead baskets in the final seconds, immortalizing their places in their program’s histories.

The day began with Louisiana advancing in the Sun Belt Tournament, then ended well past midnight on the east coast as Saint Mary’s Jordan Ford and Pepperdine’s Colbey Ross scored 40-plus points in the Gaels’ double-overtime thriller. Saturday was a lot to take in, but here are a smattering of highlights from a jam-packed day.

Mountain West Championship

#2 Utah State 59, #1 San Diego State 56

What if I told you that a team that went 20 possessions without a field goal and trailed by as many as 16 points, yet somehow knocked off the No. 5 team in the nation to win back-to-back conference titles?

Chances are, you’d react by saying, “Yes, I totally believe this happened because I totally believe in Sam Merrill (and I read the lede in this article, silly goose).”

Nothing was clicking for Utah State. Playing on merely 15 hours of rest after putting Wyoming’s Cinderella run to bed, Merrill and the Aggies came out flat against the Aztecs — and even flat would be an understatement. Yanni Wetzell had his way inside, grabbing seven rebounds before the first media timeout and looking damn-near unstoppable while doing it. And, as a testament to SDSU’s depth, they bolted ahead even while Malachi Flynn struggled — by his standards — in the first half.

But in a sign of things to come, Diogo Brito’s three to beat the buzzer at the end of the first half ended up sparking something in the Aggies that couldn’t be quantified by shooting stats, deficits or win probability. Merrill, Utah State’s star guard who once tweeted that he came to Utah State to win conference titles and not just quarterfinal games, sparked a second-half rally with big shot after big shot. Whenever it seemed like his legs were too tired or that the Aggies ran out of March magic, he delivered on the next play until the clock hit zero.

As for that game-winner: Merrill hit a contested three over KJ Feagin, one of the best perimeter defenders in not only the Mountain West, but also quite possibly the country. The degree of difficulty on that shot was astronomical. Yet the Aggie fans who packed Thomas & Mack Center probably wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Going into the MWC Tournament, Utah State’s NCAA Tournament hopes hinged on at least making it to the championship game — and even then, the Aggies might’ve needed a lot of things to break right if they lost. That speculation was rendered moot. Now the only MWC-related speculation is whether or not San Diego State will earn a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Ohio Valley Championship

#1 Belmont 76, #2 Murray State 75

Nearly a year removed from Maryland intercepting a backdoor cut to dash Belmont’s NCAA Tournament hopes, the Bruins punched their ticket back to the Big Dance with another beautifully designed backdoor play.

Despite a new coach in Casey Alexander and a resurgent star in Adam Kunkel, the Bruins won on a go-ahead layup from grad transfer Tyler Scanlon, who played for Boston University this time last year. The Bruins snapped a two-game OVC Championship skid against the Racers, and won their first tourney title since the 2015 season.

Like all Belmont-Murray State games, the one that mattered the most was an entertaining affair. Both teams had an effective field goal percentage north of 50%, both played relatively even, clean basketball (there were only 10 turnovers apiece) and so many players rose to the occasion. Aside from the aforementioned Scanlon, Murray State’s Tevin Brown led the Racers with 17 points and Nick Muszynski — who missed last year’s OVC Championship game due to injury — scored a game-high 25 points despite getting in foul trouble down the stretch.

Unlike last season, both Belmont and Murray State didn’t go in with strong enough non-conference resumes to feel safe about the result of the OVC Championship game. Bart Torvik’s TourneyCast slots the Racers as the 64th-team out of the bracket with a 0% chance of making the NCAA Tournament. Belmont, on the other hand, was a combined 1-3 in Quad. 1-2 games, highlighted by a road win at Western Kentucky on Dec. 28. Another season of two-bid OVC would’ve been remarkable, but that would be picking nits.

For now, Belmont waits. BracketMatrix has the Bruins as a 14-seed right now, but that will almost certainly change drastically over the next week.

Missouri Valley Semifinals

#4 Bradley 76, #8 Drake 66
#7 Valparaiso 89, #6 Missouri State 82

Finally, a straightforward Arch Madness game — said no one, ever.

Bradley trailed the upset-minded Drake Bulldogs for the first 1:26 before the 4 seed took the lead on Darrell Brown’s lone three of the afternoon. From there, the Braves didn’t look back. Brown scored 25, the Bulldogs shot a dismal 5-18 from three and the defending MVC Tournament champs advanced to the championship game for the second-consecutive year.

Meanwhile, Missouri State’s season with high expectations came to a disappointing end at the hands of Valparaiso’s Javon Freeman-Liberty, whose 29 point, nine rebound and five assist outing was one of the best individual performances of Arch Madness thus far. The Crusaders won three games in three days to make it to that point.

Those games set up a thrilling end to an absolutely bonkers conference tournament. Freeman-Liberty versus the conference’s best field goal percentage defense? Sign us up.

NEC Tournament Semifinals

#2 St. Francis (PA) 84, #3 Sacred Heart 72
#1 Robert Morris 86, #4 LIU 66

Pour one out for the Never Made the Tournament Club, which saw one of its most promising potential departures fall at the hands of St. Francis (PA). Anthony Latina’s Sacred Heart squad started behind the eight ball, staged a rally in the second half, yet ultimately fell short. The Pioneers are 20-13 at the moment, so a CBI or a CIT bid might be in the cards.

Top-seeded Robert Morris upheld its end of the deal by dispatching an experienced LIU team with relative ease. This sets up a championship game between the NEC’s top two (non-Merrimack) teams that split the season series. BracketMatrix expects both teams to be 16 seeds.

CAA Championship first round

#8 Drexel 66, #9 UNC Wilmington 55
#7 Elon 63, #10 James Madison 61

The real excitement in the CAA Championship came courtesy of Elon’s Marcus Sheffield, who danced around and hit this fadeaway jumper to beat James Madison.

That is one way to win the first conference tournament game in five years, Elon.

Sun Belt Championship first round

Louisiana 73, Arkansas State 66
Coastal Carolina 63, UT Arlington 62

Like the CAA, the Sun Belt had one not-so-close game and one nail-biter. Since this article is already over 1,200 words long (and we haven’t even gotten to lamenting the loss of #2BidSoCon), let’s watch Tyrell Gumbs-Frater’s game-winner and move on.

SoCon Championship Quarterfinals

#5 Western Carolina 70, #4 Mercer 56
#7 Wofford 77, #2 Furman 68
#6 Chattanooga 78, #3 UNC Greensboro 68
#1 East Tennessee State 70, #9 VMI 57

Welp, the dreams of #2BidSoCon hinge on three teams that went a combined 0-6 versus the top-seeded East Tennessee State Buccaneers.

Yet not all hope is lost. Western Carolina looks like the hottest team in the SoCon Tournament after it shellacked Mercer. The Catamounts won thanks to Mason Faulkner’s 22 point night, Onno Steger’s long bombs and Carlos Dotson doing basically everything. Mercer let WCU shot 75% from inside the arc, which isn’t exactly a successful defensive game plan.

Meanwhile, Chattanooga became the only non-ETSU team to beat UNC Greensboro twice this season. Then Wofford — a team that lost Fletcher Magee and head coach Mike Young from last year’s NCAA Tournament team — upset 2 seed Furman. Momentum be damned, because the Terriers are on their first winning streak since early February. Does it matter that Wofford went on a seven-game losing streak before the SoCon Tournament? Absolutely not.

Summit League Quarterfinals

#1 North Dakota State 71, #8 Denver 69
#7 Purdue Fort Wayne 77, #2 South Dakota State 74

For 39 minutes, it looked like the Summit League’s top seed would be upset by an 8 seed for the second-straight year.

The 7-23 Denver Pioneers hung with North Dakota State — the Summit League’s defending champs, nonetheless — but two free throws from Vinnie Shahid were the difference in this one. Denver had two chances to tie it in the final six seconds, but were undone in part by a controversial no-call on Jase Townsend’s layup.

But the Summit League’s craziness didn’t stop there. South Dakota State might’ve lost a lot from last year’s team that lost to Western Illinois in the quarterfinals, but the Jackrabbits fell victim to an underdog once again. This time, it was the Purdue Fort Wayne Mastadons, who were supposed to go through a rebuilding year after losing John Konchar to graduation.

America East Quarterfinals

#4 UMBC 73, #5 New Hampshire 67
#3 Hartford 89, #6 UMass Lowell 75
#1 Vermont 61, #8 Maine 50
#2 Stony Brook 76, #7 Albany 73

All four of the top seeds advanced, setting up an inevitable Vermont versus a NMTC member matchup in the championship game. Very cool!

WCC Tournament Quarterfinals

#5 San Francisco 72, #4 Pacific 54
#3 Saint Mary’s 89, #6 Pepperdine 82 (2OT)

Before yesterday, all of the WCC Tournament’s games went chalk. Then Charles Minlend and the Dons had different ideas.

Despite allowing Jahlil Tripp to score 23 first-half points, the Dons battered the 4 seed Pacific Tigers in the paint thanks to Jimbo Lull’s combination of grace and power. The Dons’ defense came through in the second half by holding Pacific to 19 points on a dismal 5-33 (15%) mark from the field. Aside from Tripp’s heroic 29-point night and Gary Chivichyan’s 4-8 showing from three, the Tigers couldn’t get offense from anyone else.

Finally, after five games of chalky results, the WCC Tournament had its first close game. And boy, was it a game to remember.

Saint Mary’s senior Jordan Ford and Pepperdine junior Colbey Ross went mano-a-mano, scoring 85 of the game’s 171 points. Although Ross set a new career best with his game-high 43 points, Ford’s final five of his 42 points were the deciding factors.

Here’s the dagger from Ford. Would you believe him if he said he initially threw that up with the primary goal of drawing a foul?

The Gaels have been no stranger to late-game heroics. After being on the wrong end of a quadruple-overtime game against Pacific, then bearing witness to one of TJ Haws’ clutch buckets, Saint Mary’s finally had an unforgettable moment of its own.

Speaking of Haws, the Gaels will meet BYU in the semifinals on Monday night. Earlier this season, SMC split the series with its overtime win and the aforementioned last-second loss at the hands of Haws in Provo. That game will be what we in the biz call: “must-see television.”