Racers and Bruins battle for OVC crown

Mar 7, 2015 - 4:12 PM Nashville, TN (SportsNetwork.com) - The 25th-ranked and top-seeded Murray State Racers hope to complete their undefeated season in Ohio Valley Conference play and earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament as they take on the third-seeded Belmont Bruins in the OVC Tournament title game at Municipal Auditorium Saturday.

Whichever team walks away victorious punches its ticket to the national tournament by way of the Ohio Valley Conference's automatic bid.

Both Belmont and Murray State walked away still alive from nail-biting finishes on Friday. Belmont came back from a second-half deficit to take a late lead against defending OVC champion Eastern Kentucky in the semifinal round, and pulled ahead on a pair of free throws with 25 seconds left to take a 53-52 victory. The Bruins have won six in a row entering the title clash.

Murray State survived an absolutely thrilling semifinal matchup against Morehead State, 80-77, after the Racers trailed by double digits in the second half. Murray State extended the nation's second-longest win streak to 25 games, and is a perfect 17-0 against league foes this season.

The two rivals met just once during the regular season in Murray on Jan. 15, when the Racers came away with a 92-77 victory. This is the second time in three years these two teams meet in the conference finals, and the third consecutive trip to the championship game for the Bruins since joining the league in 2012.

Eastern Kentucky held an offensive advantage over Belmont in the semifinal round on Friday, as the Colonels connected on 44.2 percent of their shots from the floor in the game while the Bruins netted just 34.5 percent of their tries. But Belmont outscored the Colonels from 3-point range, 24-15, and owned a 37-26 edge in rebounding to help the comeback cause. Taylor Barnette paced the Bruins with 14 points, while Craig Bradshaw chipped in 12 and Reece Chamberlain added 10 points with eight assists and seven rebounds. Belmont and EKU split the regular-season series, with each team winning on its home court.

Bradshaw entered the semifinal matchup leading Belmont in scoring at 18.1 ppg, connecting on 49.6 percent of his field goal tries from the floor. Evan Bradds checked in behind him at 14.4 ppg, and Barnette added in 10.7 ppg for a team that was netting 74.7 ppg - second in the conference behind Murray State's offense. In the regular-season meeting between the two championship-bound programs, Belmont connected on 43.8 percent of its shots from the floor, and was led by Barnette's 19-point outing. Bradds chipped in with 17 points, and Bradshaw collected 16 to round out the Bruins' trio of double-digit scorers. Belmont made 11-of-31 from 3-point distance, but couldn't contain the red-hot Racers defensively.

Murray State appeared to be sailing on through to the championship game early in Friday's semifinal match against Morehead State, as the Racers took an 11- point lead with a minute and a half left to play in the first half. But the tables turned in the second period, as the Eagles grabbed an 11-point advantage with 6:31 to play in the game, threatening Murray State's streak. However, the Racers mounted a furious comeback led by OVC Player of the Year Cameron Payne, who scored a game-high 25 points. Payne and Jarvis Williams (23 points, 10 rebounds) swung the momentum back in Murray State's favor as the team pulled back ahead in the waning minutes. T.J. Sapp contributed 17 points and Jeffery Moss added 10 with five rebounds to help the cause, while Jonathan Fairell grabbed a team-best 13 rebounds. Murray State held advantages in scoring in the paint, 46-34, and on the boards, 42-33, to help the team pull off the come-from-behind victory.

Payne led the league in scoring during the regular season, averaging 20.2 ppg behind 46.1 percent shooting from the floor. His 172 assists were the most on the squad, and he showed off his defensive traits by notching 59 steals as well. Williams followed suit in scoring with 15.4 ppg with a team-best 8.3 rpg during the regular season, and Sapp trailed with 11.4 ppg. Moss rounded out the team's double-digit scorers with 11.1 ppg for a Murray State squad that led the OVC in points per outing at 78.8 ppg. In the only matchup between the Racers and Bruins in the regular season, Murray State buried 55.9 percent of its shots from the field and was led by Payne's 23 points, while five others scored in double figures in the 15-point Racers win.

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