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Morehead State and Liberty punch tickets to the NCAA Tournament

The first two bids came out of the OVC and ASUN.

Liberty v Towson Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Ohio Valley championship

For the first time since Kenneth Faried was hoovering up every rebound across the Ohio Valley, the Morehead State Eagles are headed to the NCAA Tournament.

Johni Broome compiled a Faried-ian stat line with 27 points, 12 rebounds, and two blocks to lead the Eagles to an 86-71 win over Belmont in Evansville, clinching the program’s first March Madness bid since 2011.

The freshman big was nearly unstoppable on the block, making 12 of his 19 shots to earn the OVC Tournament MVP. He was joined on the All-Tournament team by teammates DeVon Cooper and Skyelar Potter, fellow freshman Wendell Green Jr. of Eastern Kentucky, and do-it-all Belmont point guard Grayson Murphy.

Potter also grabbed a double-double in the title game, with 22 points and 13 rebounds on an efficient 7-11 shooting (including 3-4 from downtown).

Despite taking down Belmont a week before the title game, the Eagles entered the matchup as underdogs. The line of thinking made sense. The Bruins were missing their leading scorer, Nick Muszynski, in that meeting, and it still took overtime for Morehead to pull out the win.

Muszynski was back for the OVC Tournament, and had 23 points on 10-15 shooting in the title game, but it wasn’t enough. The Eagles played fearlessly, jumping out to an early lead and controlling the entire game.

In addition to Broome and Potter’s double-doubles, DeVon Cooper added 14 points and Talon Cooper (unrelated) notched 10 points off the bench. In all, the Eagles shot a blazing 54 percent from the floor and 47 percent from three.

The rest of the tournament went according to plan, for the most part. Murray State forced Jacksonville State to overtime and Austin Peay took Eastern Kentucky to the wire (how does Terry Taylor, the OVC Player of the Year, who has 19 points and 16 rebounds on the night, not touch the ball on the final three possessions of a one-score game?!?), but all of the top seeds prevailed, setting up a pair of great semifinal matchups.

Murphy followed his 13-8-7-5 line from the first round with a 14-6-12-3 line to lead the Bruins to a three-point win over Jacksonville State. He also had 13-8-8-and-2 in the championship game.

The EKU-Morehead State semifinal was one of the most exciting games of championship week so far. Green went for 29 points, three rebounds, and four assists for the Colonels, while Broome had 17-and-13 and Cooper had 25-6-and-4. The Eagles eked out a 67-64 win, setting the stage for the championship game upset.

After winning the first conference championship game of the season, Morehead State will wait until Selection Sunday to see where its 23-7 record and 125 NET ranking will land them. Meanwhile, Belmont sits at home with 26 wins, the most in all of D-I, and with a slim-to-none chance of landing an at-large bid.

ASUN championship

The Liberty Flames will be dancing for the third year in a row, but their path to clinching a bid was slightly different this time around.

Liberty defeated North Alabama, the 5 seed in the bracket, 79-75, in an exciting championship game in Jacksonville. But UNA is ineligible for any NCAA postseason tournaments due to being in year two of its four-year transition from Division II to Division I. So the Flames clinched the ASUN’s auto bid as soon as the Lions reached the final.

Even still, both squads showed up for what could have been a letdown of a game. Liberty played like it wanted to earn its spot in the Big Dance, while UNA looked like a team that knew it only had one game left no matter what.

It looked like Liberty would run away with the title in the first half, but UNA answered every Flames run with a run of its own. Darius McGhee made a number of big plays for Liberty, finishing with 21 points and eight rebounds. Kyle Rode also came through with 15 points, six rebounds, and five assists.

Four different Lions finished in double-figures. UNA was playing in its Super Bowl, and it was obvious. Mervin James nearly had a double-double with 16 points and eight rebounds. The senior backcourt of C.J. Brim and Payton Youngblood combined for 29 points on 10-18 shooting in what was the last game of their careers.

McGhee, Rode, and Chris Parker were named to the All-Tournament team for Liberty, while James and Youngbood made it for UNA. They were joined by FGCU’s Jalen Warren and Stetson’s Christiaan Jones.

Despite the excitement of the title game, the rest of the tournament was a letdown. The second, third, and fourth seeds (Bellarmine, Lipscomb, and North Florida, respectively) were all upset in the first round. Chaos can be fun, but it led to a boring semifinal round where Liberty waltzed to the final.

The Flames swept aside Stetson 77-64 and watched UNA do the same to FGCU, leading to the first 2021 March Madness bid being handed out on Friday, a day earlier than expected.

Depending on a 1 seed dropping here or there across the other one-bid league tournaments still to play, the 23-5 Flames (NET of 83) will probably slot in as a 13 seed in the Big Dance.