Yesterday put the “survive” in “survive and advance”
The Ohio Valley Conference Tournament is no stranger to exciting games. EKU’s thriller over Murray State in the semifinals last year, Belmont’s buzzer-beater to dispatch Murray two seasons ago. Nashville has had an embarrassment of riches when it comes to great bouts in recent years.
…but I’m not sure I can remember a tournament game like Morehead-Murray last night.
At halftime, it was over. Morehead was coming unraveled at the seams; two technical fouls in the first half, a double-digit deficit, playing their third game in three days against a team on fresh legs. It looked like Murray would walk into the title game.
And then began the second half. Morehead not only erased the lead in the first ten minutes, but began building their own. The Eagles seemingly couldn’t miss, the Racers couldn’t hit from anywhere. Murray went down 11, and with shades of last year in their mind, it looked like, again, the Murray faithful made the journey to Nashville for an early exit.
It was over. Again.
Someone forgot to tell Cameron Payne. Payne didn’t have an amazing game by any stretch. Morehead bottled him up throughout, forced him to pass the ball to someone else, telling the Racers that someone else was going to have to win that game — but it wouldn’t be him.
After the game, Morehead State head coach Sean Woods called the shots Payne made down the stretch “miraculous.”
That seems as good an explanation as any.
It’s not meant as a slight against Payne, as some members of Racer Nation took it last night on Twitter. Woods spent most of his post game press conference singing Payne’s praises, saying we’ll be seeing the sophomore playing on TNT one day, and how the great teams in the Ohio Valley Conference have always had NBA talent.
But those weren’t just hard shots. They weren’t just important shots. Every shot at that point in the game was with the Racers’ life hanging in the balance. Every shot had a degree of difficulty of 11.
Every shot kept the Racers season alive just a little bit longer.
…and every shot brought Morehead State, a finally healthy Eagles team playing much better than their record showed, that much closer to their tournament end.
Odds are, tonight’s game won’t live up to the second half of that one. The swings in momentum, both teams fighting back from big, seemingly insurmountable deficits.
The word survival implies a potentially dark outcome; You don’t survive a sunny day. Last night, both teams saw their light nearly extinguished.
At the end of the day, Murray’s is still burning. At least, for another 40 minutes.
The Rock Fight: As great as game one was last night, I wouldn’t use that word to describe game two. 10 minutes into the game, Eastern Kentucky held a 24-18 lead, and it looked like we would be playing into the 90s.
EKU scored just 28 points the final 30 minutes. The Colonels hit 23.8% from the field in the second half. And they still had a chance to win on the final possession.
If you, somehow, need proof why Rick Byrd is a great coach, I present that final possession. Byrd’s teams rarely played zone in general, and hadn’t all game. With the game on the line, Byrd took a huge risk, and put his players in a 2-3 zone. The change completely confused EKU, who burned eight valuable seconds trying to figure out what to do before calling a second timeout to set up a second play. On the next attempt, Belmont showed zone, before switching into man-to-man, denying EKU’s first look, and escaping with a hard fought win.
As pretty as Belmont looked in their win against Eastern Kentucky, they looked that ugly in their win over Eastern Kentucky. If you would have told me before the game Belmont would score 53 points against EKU, I would have told you they would lose by 20.
They didn’t. Another survival. Not as made-for-TV as the first. But a win nonetheless.
(3) Belmont vs (1) Murray State
Murray won season series 1-0 (92-77 in Murray)
The first game was pretty much as lopsided as the score shows: Belmont hit 11 threes, but had no answer for Murray State on the defensive end throughout, as six Racers scored in double figures in the win.
Defense has been a struggle for the Bruins all season long, and even though last night’s game was far from pretty to watch, it is quite encouraging how Belmont shut down EKU after those first 10 minutes. They made shots difficult, and only gave up a pair of offensive rebounds to the Colonels. That second part is going to be much more difficult against Murray State. The Racers have more size on the inside, and have been a strong rebounding team all year. Offensively, Belmont missed shots, sure, but they didn’t reduced turnovers, and pulled down 15 offensive rebounds of their own, including a key one in the final minute that allowed Evan Bradds to get to the free-throw line. Belmont might not need to win the battle of the boards with Murray, but it will help immensely if they can stay even.
The Racers are becoming the master of the close game, but there’s a lot of reason to feel that Murray State can play better. Payne missed open shots, T.J. Sapp was just 1-6 from three-point range they struggled with turnovers early, and as a team, gave up 13 offensive rebounds, couldn’t get out on Morehead State shooters. They still scored 80 points and won, despite playing a far from perfect game. Murray almost feels like their own worst enemy at this point — but that also means they’re in control of their destiny. Murray plays their best game, it’s hard to imagine them losing. If they don’t? They’re vulnerable, just like anyone at this level.