It’s an old chiche in sports, a notion coaches usually dismisses in post game interviews, but still finds it’s way into game stories and radio shows.
That was a statement win.
Both Belmont and Morehead State looked impressive in last night quarterfinals. Morehead became the first team in the new OVC Tournament format to win on Wednesday and Thursday, dispatching the upstart Skyhawks, while Belmont hit every three they missed in Charleston, nearly hitting triple digits in a big win over Eastern Illinois. Both teams were dominant, no doubt.
But you don’t make statements in the OVC Tournament quarterfinals.
If Morehead State succumbs to the nationally ranked Racers tonight, no one’s going to talk about how many turnovers they forced, or how many points Angelo Warner scored against UT Martin. If the Bruins can’t overcome last year’s OVC Tournament loss to the Colonels, last night’s 97-point performance will be an afterthought.
Tournaments exist for one reason: to find a single champion. Sure, you can pull off upsets, you can advance farther than most people expect. You can have those moral victories. And you can have a successful season, and a successful tournament without being the champion. But at the end of the day, only one team is left standing.
If any statement is made here in Nashville, they’re the only one’s who will make it.
There is no reason UT Martin can’t have the same, or more success next year: The Skyhawks graduate three seniors, but the cupboard is hardly bare for the Skyhawks. Myles Taylor, who missed most of this year because of injury, will give a second-go to his senior year, Twymond Howard will join him in the frontcourt, making a pretty scary duo, and sharpshooter Alex Anderson will anchor the Skyhawks backcourt. Their season also might not be done — they’re hoping for a CBI or CIT bid, and we’ve seen what success in those tournaments can mean for a team the following season.
Johnson’s production will be hard to replicate for EIU: Eastern Illinois returns much of their production from this year, and two of the best surprises in the Ohio Valley Conference this year in Trae Anderson and Cornell Johnston. Johnston could struggle a bit in his sophomore season with three-point shooting — at least in comparison to this season. 53% is hard to replicate, and in recent history we’ve seen young guards have great shooting seasons that they just couldn’t match. (SIUE’s Kris Davis comes to mind)
Angelo Warner is the piece Morehead State has been missing all year: It’s been a rough year for the Eagles senior, but he’s finding his shooting touch again at the right time. The Eagles have always wanted to score off their defense, and when you force 16 turnovers, you’re going to have a chance to do just that. But that’s only 16 possession out of 60 or so in a basketball game — the rest, you’re going to have to score out of our half-court sets, and that’s where Morehead State has really struggled. Warner’s been banged up this year, but he’s healthy now, and the Eagles will need a third big game from him against Murray State tonight.
Belmont’s not going to shoot 60% all tournament long: Don’t get me wrong, they’d love to, it’s just not all that realistic. So, that’s why I’m choosing to focus on what they did to Eastern Illinois defensively. Not only did they hold EIU to 41% shooting, they shut down Olivier, EIU’s leading scorer, holding him to just four points, while outrebounding the Panthers by 15, especially impressive given the disparity in shooting. Reggie Smith did get open looks from deep, which is somewhat concerning given the Bruins next opponent, Eastern Kentucky, usually have at least four guys on the floor at all times that can hit threes. The Bruins also just forced nine turnovers, a number they’ll need to rise against one of the best teams in the nation at forcing them. Overall, it was a very solid performance defensively, especially in the first half, and that’s really been where Belmont has struggled at times.
(4) Morehead State vs (1) Murray State
Murray won season series 1-0 (Racers won 66-57 in Morehead)
The first game in this series was so long ago, it’s almost not even worth looking at: it was both teams first game in conference play.
Morehead’s penchant for forcing turnover has really been the fuel for the Eagles on their five-game winning streak. In those games, they’ve forced at least 16 in every contest. That’s not what’s been surprising though. Over those same five games, the Morehead State offense has averaged 1.16 points per possession, nearly a tenth a point above their season average. (A tenth is worth 5-6 points in a standard game) Murray State during their last five games? 1.19. So, in short, over their last win streak, the Eagles offense has been nearly as effective as the Racers, and that’s a big reason for the Eagles recent successes. Equally impressive — they’ve been able to increase their offensive output without hurting their defense.
You would have to be living under a rock to not know by this point what Murray State has done this season, yet despite their 24-game winning streak, there’s an air of vulnerability. The Racers likely need to win the OVC Tournament to get into the NCAA Tourney, and it’s hard to ignore that the Racers were taken to overtime twice, and won six other games during conference play by single digits. There’s no silver bullet, obviously, to beating Murray State, but when we’ve seen them struggle, there’s often a similar combination of things happening: the Racers are getting turned over, and their bigs, especially Jonathan Fairell are in foul trouble. Morehead’s forwards, especially Billy Reader and Karam Mashour have been effective in the Eagles first two rounds. Murray needs Fairell in the game — he can be a game changer defensively. Some of that will go on the guards — guys like T.J. Sapp and Jeffrey Moss not allowing the Eagles to get the ball to their bigs on the inside.
(3) Belmont vs (2) Eastern Kentucky
Teams split season series (Each won at home: 81-69 in Richmond, 66-61 in Nashville)
The win in Nashville for the Bruins over the Colonels does come with a bit of an asterisk: EKU’s leading scorer, Corey Walden, didn’t play. Both games between these teams came in February, so it’s safe to safe they know each other well. The big difference between the two games: EKU”s three-point shooting. The Colonels hit 12-23 (52%) in their win, but just 6-27 (22%) in their loss to Belmont. That’s not just Walden.
Earlier, I talked about EKU’s ability to force turnovers, and they’ve no problem doing that against the Bruins this year, forcing 18 and 19 in their two contests. Where Belmont gets those turnovers back is on the boards — outrebounding the Colonels by eight and 17 in their two contests. If EKU can rebound, or Belmont can reduce their turnovers, this could be a very different day. Of course, the issue there is — these are weakness both teams have had all season long.
Both teams have great leaders in Craig Bradshaw and Corey Walden. Both teams have tournament experience, and great head coaches. Both teams have a great strength, and a glaring weakness. I would be shocked if this isn’t a one or two possession game in the final minute.
Photos Courtesy: Michael Dann