NASHVILLE, Tenn. The route may have changed, but Belmont men's basketball is dancing just the same.
After representing the Atlantic Sun Conference in the NCAA Tournament the past two seasons and five times in seven years, the Bruins will make a third-straight trip to the Big Dance. This time, though, they will do so as both regular season and tournament champions from their new league, the Ohio Valley Conference.
The NCAA tourney automatic bid comes courtesy of a thrilling 70-68 overtime win over Murray State here Saturday night in front of 4,590 at Municipal Auditorium. The Bruins (26-6) did not leave it to chance that their national Ratings Percentage Index ranking of 23rd would have been good enough to receive an at-large bid into the NCAA tourney field had they not won the OVC's automatic bid.
"These two semifinal and final games were tougher than any two semifinal games we played while we were in the Atlantic Sun," Belmont coach Rick Byrd said of Saturday's win over the Racers (21-10), who had won two of three previous OVC tourneys; and Tennessee State, which it beat Friday in the semifinal round.
Both teams had beaten Belmont during the regular season.
"I am assuming our team with the high RPI and the record and all that is as good as or better than the other five championships we have," Byrd added. " We had to beat two teams that were as good or better as all of the teams we had to beat in the A-Sun tournaments."
While Byrd and his Bruins can exhale and wait for their NCAA tourney seeding and placement come a week from Sunday, they had their fans holding their collective breaths while rallying in regulation to force overtime and then getting a game-winning shot from senior guard Kerron Johnson with 1.2 seconds remaining. It was also Johnson, the tournament most valuable player, who hit the shot that forced overtime.
"That was a complete team effort," said Johnson, who was fouled and driven to the floor early in the overtime period during a drive to the basket before coming back in time to hit the game winner. After the game, he received four stitches in his chin.
"I knew if I could get to the lane, I was pretty confident it was going down," Johnson said of the game winner that came on a wheeling 6-footer from the left side of the lane. " It's great to hit that shot. You want that pressure. When it comes down to it, you want to be able to make that shot."
It was certainly a game of runs. After Murray State led by eight points on three occasions in the first half, the Bruins went on a 9-0 run to close the half for a 22-21 lead. After extending that run to 13-0 to start the second half, the Racers answered with a 17-2 spurt that netted a 10-point lead, their largest of the game.
But the Bruins scored the game's next 10 points during a stretch where they forced Murray State into five straight turnovers. The Racers finished with 26 turnovers for the game.
"It wasn't meant to be for whatever reason," Murray State coach Steve Prohm said of the loss. "You could probably point to a lot of things. But both teams were extremely resilient. It was a great game."
While Murray State hopes it has done enough to garner a bid to the National Invitation Tournament, the Bruins will watch where they will be seeded and placed by the NCAA Selection Committee.
"First off, we don't know what is going to go on between now until Selection Sunday that will impact our seed without a question," Byrd said. "The best thing is to trust those guys to get in there and do the best they can.
"It wouldn't matter if you had the 12 Apostles in there doing it, somebody would really be upset about the outcome. I suspect we have a fighting chance at an 11 or 12 (seed)."
UT-Martin women win again
UT-Martin and Tennessee Tech have become familiar opponents in the OVC women's tournament championship game after meeting for a third-straight season Saturday afternoon. And for the third year in a row, UT-Martin (19-14) beat the Golden Eagles (19-12), this time 87-80 in overtime to garner the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
"We've been outplayed twice (in the tournament) and shouldn't be going on," UT-Martin coach Kevin McMillan said. "But (we) found a way to win. And at some point, it's just about figuring out what you've got to do to win a basketball game."
Junior guard Jasmine Newsome backed up her two-time OVC Player of the Year honors by being named OVC Tournament Most Valuable Player after scoring a game-high 34 points in the title game. She set the tourney's three-game scoring record with 98 points, including setting the single-game scoring record with 41 points in the quarterfinal win over Eastern Kentucky.
"It's a great feeling," Newsome said, "because I know at the beginning of the season people weren't picking us to win the (conference). They had doubts. It's a great feeling to like shut everybody up, the haters."
Fourth-seeded UT-Martin got 78 of its 87 points from the trio of Newsome, junior guard Heather Butler (24 points) and senior forward Rickiesha Bryant (20), who also had a game-high 12 rebounds. No. 2 seeded Tennessee Tech had four players score in double figures, including senior guard Jala Harris with a team-high 19 points.