There has been much discussion this season about the lack of scoring in college basketball and what needs to be done to fix the issue. It is a bit ironic, then, that the first automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament was earned on a Saturday night when Belmont won a fast-paced back-and-forth shootout in Nashville over Murray State to take the OVC Championship and return to the Big Dance for the first time since 2013. The 88-87 game featured a combined 26 made three-pointers and 12 lead changes, the last of which came when Belmont’s Taylor Barnette made a fall-away three with 3.2 seconds left that proved to be the game-winner. It was a thrilling finish to a thrilling tournament in which the final three games were decided by a total of five points.
At the end of the day, though, a familiar face left with the hardware. Belmont lost in last year’s OVC championship game to Eastern Kentucky, but it had avenged that loss on Friday night to reach the final. Unlike last year, though, the Bruins were not expected to earn the league’s automatic bid. Murray State came into Saturday riding a 25-game winning streak, rolling through OVC play with a perfect 16-0 record. Though it is widely believed that the Racers now have no realistic shot at an at-large bid, they feature a future NBA guard in Cameron Payne who averages over 20 points and five assists per game. Belmont coach Rick Byrd knew that pulling off this upset would be a tall order. “I was prepared to say I’m proud to say we made eight of 10 conference championship games over the past 10 years, and at halftime I was really prepared to say something like that, because the last 10 minutes of the first half, it looked like men and boys,” Byrd said after the game, referring to a dominant 30-10 run the Racers put together over the last 10:06 of the first frame.