In the last seven years, Belmont has made six NCAA tournament appearances as a member of two conferences. Eastern Kentucky: none. Until now.
Eastern Kentucky jumped out to a 17-2 lead, and then held off a late charge to win their first Ohio Valley Conference tournament title since 2007, beating the Belmont Bruins 79-73. Glenn Cosey and Corey Walden combined for 51 points, and eight triples, as EKU never trailed on their way to the tournament title.
“Our mentality going into tonight’s game, as well as the last two nights, is we wanted to play with the lead.” Eastern Kentucky head coach Jeff Neubauer said. “Our guys absolutely took that to heart, they hit some shots, and more importantly they defended.”
“I was really concerned about this game,” Belmont head coach Rick Byrd said after the loss. “We really were able to move the ball to get higher quality shots than I was concerned we could get, we just didn’t have a good shooting day.”
“We just didn’t shoot the ball the like this team needs too to win big games,” he added. “And they did shoot the ball. That’s a big part of this game.”
After falling behind by 15, thanks in part to three three-point shots in the first four possessions by the Colonels, Belmont responded with seven unanswered points of their own to pull back within eight. But the run would be short lived, as EKU rattled off six straight of the own, capped off by Cosey’s second three of the half. Back-to-back three’s by the Bruins cut the lead back to eight, but they couldn’t pull any closer before the break.
Much like the first half, Eastern Kentucky started the second half on a run, with Walden scoring five unanswered to push the lead back to 13. The Colonels led by double digits with 15:41 remaining, before a nearly four minute scoring drought allowed the Bruins to pull back with six. After hitting a pair of shots, another four minute scoring drought led to a pair of game-tying free-throws with 6:31 to play.
As they had done all night, Eastern Kentucky responded with an 8-0 run. The Colonels hit most of their free-throws down the stretch to secure the six point win, and their first trip to the dance in seven years.
“I think as a coach, you’ve got to have that mentality, that you’re going to get the program back to where you want to be,” Neubauer said. “To make it come true — very difficult to do.”
Despite tonight’s loss, Belmont’s season will continue, earning the conference’s automatic NIT bid by winning the OVC regular season title.
“We’ve been so lucky to not have to even talk about that or think about that,” Byrd said, “that we don’t need to act any other way but that we’re grateful to get to play in the tournament. It has more history than these guys know that it has.”
BELM FG: 23-50 (46.0%)
|EKU 3PT: 11-22 (50.0%) |
BELM 3PT: 8-24 (33.3%)
|EKU FT: 22-29 (75.9%)
BELM FT: 19-23 (82.6%)
|EKU OPP: 1.239||BELM OPP: 1.142|
|Points:||Corey Walden (29)|
Glenn Cosey (23)
Tarius Johnson (15)
|J.J. Mann (18)
Drew Windler (14)
Evan Bradds (14)
|Rebounds:||Two tied with 5||Evan Bradds (10)|
|Assists:||Corey Walden (7)||Reece Chamberlain (7)|
|Turnover %||Off. Reb %||eFG%||FT Rate|
Corey Walden, Eastern Kentucky
Tarius Johnson, Eastern Kentucky
Glenn Cosey, Eastern Kentucky
J.J. Mann, Belmont
Cameron Payne, Murray State
Most Valuable Player
Corey Walden, Eastern Kentucky