Nashville, TN (SportsNetwork.com) - The championship game of the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament is on tap for Saturday night at Municipal Auditorium, as the top-seeded Belmont Bruins take on the third-seeded Eastern Kentucky Colonels with an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament on the line.
EKU began its tournament stay in Thursday's quarterfinals with an 84-76 triumph over Southeast Missouri State, and it followed that up with an upset over second-seeded Murray State on Friday, 86-83. The Colonels, who have won six in a row to improve to 23-9 overall, are trying to win their first tournament title since 2007.
Belmont breezed through the regular season with a 14-2 league record to earn the conference title, the No. 1 seed in the tournament and a coveted double- bye into the semifinals, and it took advantage of its fresh legs on Friday night when it made easy work of Morehead State, 86-63, to advance. The Bruins are now winners of seven in a row and 12 and their last 13 games to surge to 24-8 overall. The squad also won this event in 2013 during its inaugural OVC campaign.
Each team beat the other during the two-game regular-season series, with Belmont winning most recently at home on Jan. 25, 84-81, to take a 4-2 lead in the all-time series.
The Colonels coughed up a 12-point lead midway through the second half of their semifinal-round matchup as Murray State climbed back to tie the game at 79 with 1:33 left, but they promptly ran off five straight points to put the game away, with Corey Walden's three-point play with 1:18 remaining proving to be the game-winner. Although they were off the mark from 3-point range (6- of-20), their overall field goal percentage was outstanding in the win (.593), as they also forced 19 turnovers. Walden was the catalyst with 24 points and six steals. Glenn Cosey netted 17 points, Orlando Williams poured in 13 off the bench and Eric Stutz and Marcus Lewis scored 10 apiece.
On the season, EKU boasts an outstanding field goal percentage (.489) and knocks down 9.1 3-pointers per game for 79.0 ppg, good for a +8.5 scoring margin, and it also helps its cause with the nation's second-best turnover margin (+6.5). Cosey paces the guard-heavy squad with 18.7 ppg and his 105 3- pointers are eighth-most nationally. Walden (13.7 ppg) shoots 49 percent from the field, while Lewis (10.1 ppg), Williams (9.8 ppg), Tarius Johnson (9.3 ppg) and Stutz (8.5 ppg) round out the deep team.
The Bruins had very little trouble dismissing Morehead State in the semifinals, as they shot 52.9 percent from the field, 11-of-24 from 3-point range and 21-of-25 at the free-throw line while holding the Eagles to less than 40 percent field goal shooting en route to the 23-point victory. Pacing five players in double figures was J.J. Mann with 16 points on 4-of-6 shooting from beyond the arc. Blake Jenkins netted 13 points, Craig Bradshaw, Nick Smith and Evans Bradds all put up 11 points and Reece Chamberlain got the ample scorers involved by dishing out eight assists.
Putting up big point totals has come easily for Belmont this season, as it scores an OVC-best 80.4 ppg while ranking second in the nation in field goal percentage (.507) and tied for seventh in 3-point percentage (.399). The squad's production on the offensive end of the court has been able to successfully mask a porous defense (74.2 ppg). Mann has drained 79 3-pointers at a 40.3 percent clip and has knocked down 86.9 percent of his free-throw tries on his way to 18.3 ppg. Bradshaw (15.5 ppg), Chamberlain (11.4 ppg, 5.3 apg), Drew Windler (9.9 ppg), Bradds (9.0 ppg) and Jenkins (8.3 ppg) also bring regular contributions to the deep team.