In a back-and-forth mid-major battle Saturday night, Murray State All-American point guard Ja Morant carried the Racers to a 77-65 upset of Belmont in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament final to claim the league’s automatic bid and become the nation’s first NCAA tournament team.
Morant, a projected top-three pick in this summer’s NBA draft, put Murray State on his back — finishing with 36 points on 13-for-25 shooting from the field— one night after drilling the game-winning shot to sink Jacksonville State in the OVC semifinals. He also went 9-for-9 from the free-throw line and scored eight of the Racers’ last 15 points to help put the game away.
“I was a little frustrated with myself last night … I mean, they’re free,” Morant, who went an uneven 10-for-15 from the free-throw line Friday, said. “Tonight, I was just locked in and just followed through with all my shots and was able to make them.”
Murray State (27-4, 16-2 OVC) held on despite shooting 3-for-14 (21%) from beyond the arc, although Belmont wasn’t much better — going just 7-for-32 (22%) from three. The Racers out-rebounded the Bruins 46-30 and capitalized off second-chance points to pull off the upset. Belmont’s Dylan Windler led the Bruins with 17 points, while Kevin McClain chipped in with 14 points in the loss.
“We found a way to get it done in the second half. I’m just so proud of our team,” Murray State coach Matt McMahon said.
Saturday’s outcome likely means that there will be two Cinderella-caliber teams coming out of the Ohio Valley who are expected to make some noise in March Madness. While Murray State’s win and overall strong credentials should lead to a No. 12 seed — the best statistical double-digit seed for an upset — Belmont has a profile worthy of a No. 11 seed or No. 12 seed even with the loss.
BUBBLE WATCH: Winners and losers from Saturday
Belmont (26-5, 16-2 OVC) will do a little bit of sweating as a bubble team in the coming week, but is still expected to get in as an at-large bid given its strong NCAA tournament profile that includes a score of 41 in the NET, the NCAA’s new metric in place of the RPI. The Bruins’ résumé also features two Quadrant 1 (top-30 home, top-75 road) road victories over Lipscomb and Murray State to go with a quality non-conference road win over UCLA.
Contributing: Associated Press