Hot meets hotter.
With their win over Murray State last night, the Eagles enter tonight’s game winners of 7 straight. UT Martin has won eight of nine, althought that ninth as a lopsided, 24-point defeat in their last game.
Both teams are peaking at the right time, but there’s only one spot available in the finals to them.
These teams first meeting might as well have been a season ago. It was the second conference game for both teams, and a rock fight won by Morehead State in Martin — as neither team could muster much in the way of offense in the 64-58 contest.
I don’t expect the score to be quite as low this time around.
As good as Morehead State has been on the offensive glass all season, the second half of last night’s game against Murray State was another level: 10 offensive rebounds on 14 misses. That level of rebounding is tough to beat — and the Skyhawks will have their hands full from keeping the Eagles from repeating.
For the Skyhawks, perhaps their biggest improvement following a 2-5 start in conference play has been their consistency, especially on the offensive side of the ball. The Skyhawks are fourth in league play in offensive efficency, thanks to limiting turnovers, and getting to the free-throw line.
But despite being the two-seed, many aren’t given UT Martin much of a chance. The Skyhawks are five-point underdogs, and Ken Pom gives both UTM and Austin Peay an equal chance (29%) of winning their games tonight.
Good thing we don’t play our games on computers, then.
To me, the biggest momentum swing in the second-half wasn’t just offensive rebounds. It was two big three-pointer from Xavier Moon, the twist of the dagger in Murray State’s attempts to get back the lead in the second half. Those kind of shots aren’t what the Eagles are known for, but when they fall, they make Morehead such a tough team to beat. Morehead State plays as physical as any team in the nation, much less the league, and when the finess plays (read: jump shots and layups) are falling as well, it’s just so hard to get any kind of momentum going against them.
I’ve pretty well resigned myself to the idea that Morehead State is just going to foul more than most teams — but last night it wasn’t an issue. Free-throw shooting was about equal until Murray was forced to foul late in the game, and then the Eagles ended up with more attempts than the Racers. If the Eagles are just even on free-throw attempts, it’s a great sign for a team that’s winning despite shooting five or six fewer free-throws a game than their opponents.
No team mirrors the identity of their coach more than the Eagles and Sean Woods, and seeing his emotion after last night’s win over Murray State was so great. Even though it was just one win, and Morehead State has bigger goals here in Nashville, Woods was thrilled to finally get his first win over a program he clearly has a lot of admiration for. Every night, you see his team play with that same emotion and passion as Woods brings to the floor — and it’s one of those small things that just makes college basketball so great.
There’s this one fact that keeps getting thrown around, that I’m sure UT Martin fans would love to stop hearing after tonight: The Skyhawks have never played in an OVC Tournament final. They’ve had teams, back during the Lester Hudson years, that were talented enough, they just couldn’t get over that hump.
The new tournament format, and getting that double-bye may just be the spark they need to end that statistic forever.
Twymond Howard has been the spark for this team all season, and when he struggles, the Skyhawks struggle. He’s just such a complete player — he can score, he’s the team’s leading rebounder, and he can step out to take a three here and there as well. He’s one of those guys that is just so hard to contain, and the Skyhawks will be looking for him to find success early to help get UT Martin off to a good start.
Defensively, Woods knows to expect a lot of 2-3 zone from the Skyhawks, and while it can help keep the ball out of the inside, the big question is whether the Skyhawks can rebound out of it. To have any chance against the Eagles, they must do what Murray State couldn’t in the second half and finish defensive possessions.