OVC Titans Produced a Mid-Major Classic Thursday NightPosted by CNguon on February 8th, 2013
David Changas is a RTC correspondent. He filed this report after Thursday night’s OVC battle between Belmont and Murray State in Murray, Kentucky.
It was billed as the game of the year in the Ohio Valley Conference. The league’s perennial power and defending champion taking on the new kid on the block and winner of its first 10 games as a member of the conference. It featured two of the nation’s best guards much of the country has never heard of. While it appeared that Thursday’s matchup between OVC West Division leader Murray State and East Division Leader Belmont would not live up to the hype, a late charge by the Bruins to overcome a 14-point deficit with under 5 minutes to play to tie the game with under a minute remaining allowed it to do just that. Ian Clark, the Bruins’ three-point sharpshooter who came into Thursday’s game making an absurd 51.4% of his three-point attempts, despite attempting nearly 6.5 per game, made three in the final 2:30 to bring the Bruins all the way back from a deficit that grew to 15 points in the second half. But it was Murray State preseason All-American guard Isaiah Canaan who had the final say, as he broke the 74-all tie with a deep three with 35 seconds remaining to put the Racers back on top to stay on their way to a 79-74 victory.
“[Clark] stepped up for his team and I knew we needed it and I stepped up for ours,” Canaan said.
While Thursday’s game may have no impact on which team makes the NCAA Tournament – Belmont may be able to make a case for an at-large bid, while Murray State’s resume is not impressive enough to merit such consideration – the game clearly meant a lot to both teams. Before a charged up, partisan CFSB Center crowd of 7,141, the Racers were effective until the final minutes in controlling Clark and his backcourt mate, Kerron Johnson, who sat for the final few minutes because of his ineffectiveness, and exploiting their athletic advantage in the front court on the way to the victory. The Racers have not been nearly as dominant this season as they were last year on their way to a 5-seed in the Big Dance, but they have positioned themselves to make a run in the OVC Tournament championship and their third NCAA Tournament bid in the past four seasons with Thursday’s victory. The game clearly meant a lot to Murray State coach Steve Prohm, who expressed relief and satisfaction with his team’s effort after the game. “We needed this game,” Prohm said. “We needed it to test us and see where we are as a team. There was a different vibe out there tonight, with the crowd, the energy, the emotion, and the big plays.”
While it is clear that Murray State’s only path to the NCAA Tournament is to win next month’s league championship in Nashville, Belmont may be a different story. The Bruins entered Thursday’s contest with an RPI of 18, and while the loss will certainly cause that number to drop, if the Bruins can win out in the regular season – a distinct possibility – they will finish 25-5 overall and 15-1 in the OVC. They also have a chance at another top-100 win to go with the six they already have when Ohio visits on February 23 in a Bracket-Buster matchup, and are likely to finish the season with a top-40 RPI. While the OVC has not lived up to relatively lofty expectations this season, the league is a drastic improvement over the Bruins’ former conference, the Atlantic Sun. That it is even possible for Belmont to be in the discussion for an at-large bid is a testament to the school’s ability to move up the college basketball food chain to a league that offers better-quality opponents on a nightly basis. It remains to be seen if the Bruins can actually garner an at-large bid – and coach Rick Byrd would prefer to not leave it to chance – but it is crucial that they take care of business against the rest of their schedule and that they advance to the OVC Tournament championship game for it to be possible.
Ultimately, Thursday’s battle may have no bearing on the NCAA Tournament, and it may have been nothing more than a battle of the best two teams in the OVC and two All-American caliber guards in Canaan and Clark, but for the players involved, it was the type of game they came to these schools for. And it sure did live up to the hype.