The semifinal round of the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament was full of close games, upsets and close calls for the top seeds. No. 1 Murray State fell behind by 11 points in the second half, but OVC Player of the Year Cameron Payne rallied the Racers who eked out a three point win over Morehead State and extended the nation’s second longest win streak. In the second semifinal game Belmont’s offense cooled off from its 60 percent shooting effort in quarterfinals, but made up for it with solid defense at the end. The Bruins rallied from 10 points down to win by one, 53-52, and advance to the OVC Title game for the second straight year thanks in large part to that defense that held EKU to only five second half field goals.
What we learned tonight:
When you are faced with adversity there is no better coach to have on your sideline than Rick Byrd. (Not that this is anything we didn’t already know) When the Bruins looked like they were outmatched, Byrd called timeout and focused his team on defense. The Bruins quickly forced EKU into mistakes, and capitalized by turning those mistakes into easy confidence building baskets. The Bruins were not as sharp on offense, but simply found a way to get it done on defense.
Murray State faced its biggest adversity of the season and responded much better than they would have in November. The Racer team has grown up a lot this season and showed just why it has moved into the national polls. We also learned that while Payne is option number one for Murray State, when he is struggling, there are plenty of others ready to step up and fill the role. Jarvis Williams and T.J. Sapp filled that role tonight with 23 and 17 points respectively, until Payne found his second half rhythm and simply took the game over.
Player of the Night:
Cameron Payne of Murray State scored 25 points to lead all scorers, but his most valuable asset was his leadership in helping the Racers rally in the second half. Payne scored 15 of his points in the second half, including back-to-back baskets to ignite the large Murray State crowd and get the Racers rolling.
What to watch for in the next round:
The matchup of Belmont and Murray State is one that OVC fans have been hoping for all year. This matchup stands to be much more exciting than the Bruins early season trip to Murray, Ky., was. Belmont was run out of the gym that day, but this is a new Bruin team now. If the Bruins can establish and outside game and draw the Murray defense out of the paint, this could go down as one of the most exciting OVC Titles games in recent memory.
However, if Murray State is able to establish itself inside early, they have the big bodies to take advantage of Belmont in the paint and it could get out of hand quickly if Belmont gets into early foul trouble. Like in most games with Belmont this year, this game will come down to simply who shoots the ball better. If the Bruins keep the hot shooting hand and ability to hit big shots when they must have them, we could very well be in for a classic.
What we learned tonight:
When Ashia Jones decides she wants to score at will, there isn’t much a defense can do about it. Belmont tried stopping Jones with zone, man-to-man, and even double teams but no matter what was thrown at her Jones was able to counter. The Skyhawks who are a very balanced lineup also showed that when they have a hot hand, they know to keep riding it until it cools off.
Tennessee State is back in the OVC Tournament championship game for the first time in 20 years. OVC Hall of Fame coach Larry Jo Inman, who has only been with the Lady Tigers a few years has them believing in themselves again. The Lady Tigers played with a renewed fight in their eyes, and clearly out hustled the No. 2 SIU Edwardsville in the semifinals. They were far from intimidated and will be able to build on that confident effort in the championship game.
Player of the Night:
UT Martin’s Ashia Jones 39 point performance again showed why she was a runaway selection for conference Player of the Year. She was the only Skyhawk to score in double figures, but the Belmont defense just had no answer for her. She hit shots from outside and inside both, and when the Bruins tried fouling her, she went a perfect 7-7 from the free throw line.
What to watch for in the championship game:
As UT Martin goes for its fifth consecutive OVC Tournament championship, it is no secret that the game plan will go through Jones. Tennessee State will have to use the size it has to match up with Jones and force her out of the paint. If the Lady Tigers let Jones get set up in the paint, and build confidence, it could be a long afternoon for them.
Tennessee State also must continue shooting the ball well from three-point range. The Lady Tigers hit 10 3-pointers in the semi-finals, and with UT Martin having the size advantage in the post if TSU wants to hoist a championship trophy it will have to hit from the outside and draw the defense out.