NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Belmont and the Big Dance went hand-in-hand six of the last eight years.
But it is Eastern Kentucky that will be doing the dancing for the first time since 2007 as Ohio Valley Conference tournament champion. The Colonels knocked off the regular-season champ 79-73 here Saturday night in the title game at Municipal Auditorium to earn the league’s NCAA tourney automatic bid.
"The most rewarding part of this is, and it’s not even close, is just watching these guys celebrate," said Eastern Kentucky coach Jeff Neubauer, whose team entered the OVC tourney as the No. 3 seed and had to beat Southeast Missouri in the quarterfinals and Murray State in the semifinals to gain the title game.
"There are 12 teams in the OVC that work for this opportunity, to be the one team to go to the NCAA Tournament," he added. "To end up on top at the end, it’s an amazing feeling, especially when you spend so much time with these young men."
Eastern Kentucky (24-9) was picked as preseason favorite to win the OVC, and Belmont coach Rick Byrd isn’t surprised the Colonels came out on top, even with his Bruins (24-9) entering the tourney as the No. 1 seed.
"I think they are good enough to make a tough match for somebody in the NCAA tournament," Byrd said. "They were picked to win the conference for a reason. They had the best, experienced players in this league back.
"I thought they were just as good a year ago, and they have everybody back."
Belmont was denied a seventh NCAA tourney berth in nine years, and by virtue of its regular-season conference title, earned an automatic NIT berth. The Bruins joined the OVC last season and won both regular season and tournament titles to gain the NCAA tourney. Before that, the Bruins had won five of seven Atlantic Sun Conference tourney crowns to become a regular in the NCAA tourney.
"It stinks," Byrd said about not returning to the NCAA tournament. "And I totally appreciate what (Eastern Kentucky) is going through, because none of those kids have been, and it’s a great feeling.
"But when you get a taste of it and been fortunate enough to get so many trips that we have had, there’s nothing like it."
In the title game, Eastern Kentucky was led by tourney most valuable player Corey Walden with 29 points, including 22 in the second half. Senior guard Glenn Cosey added 23 points for the Colonels, who shot 51 percent from the field, including making 11-of-22 on three-pointers for 50 percent.
Belmont got a team-high 18 points senior forward J.J. Mann, the OVC player of the year.
"It just comes down to toughness," said Walden, a junior guard. "We knew that we would have to play one game more, but we didn’t let it affect us. We just wanted to come out and play hard basketball."
Eastern Kentucky raced out of the gate by shooting lights out, making its first five three-pointers by four different Colonels for a 17-2 bulge just seven minutes into the game. The Colonels would continue the hot shooting, hitting all but one of their first eight treys, including three by Cosey, and 10-of-13 shots overall.
Belmont answered with a modest 7-0 run following the 17-2 deficit and steadily chipped away at the lead to pull within six points with less than a minute before intermission. After the Colonels went nearly seven minutes without a field goal, Cosey canned a turnaround 8-footer from the lane to give Eastern Kentucky a 34-28 halftime lead.
By halftime, Eastern Kentucky had shot 54.5 percent from the field that included a torrid 58.3 percent on three-pointers, even after missing their last three tries of the first half.
Eastern Kentucky pushed its 36-28 halftime lead to 15 points by scoring the first five points of the second half, but Belmont steadily chipped away at the Colonels’ lead until tying the game at 52-52 on two free throws by junior guard Reece Chamberlain with 6:30 to play.
"I had rather be the team that is down 17-2 and tied it at 52 than the team up at 17-2 and tied it," Byrd said. "I don’t took think it took any more out of us. They were the team playing a third game in three days, and they had a tougher game (Friday) night (against Murray State)."
But the Colonels answered by going on an 8-0 run, getting two free throws senior guard Tarius Johnson sandwiched around three-pointers by Cosey and Walden to push the lead back up to 62-54 with just over 4 minutes to play.
From there, the Bruins would get no closer than four points down the stretch as the Colonels made 8-of-9 free throws to secure the victory.
"I don’t think we played poorly," said Byrd, the league’s coach of the year, after his team shot 46 percent from the field. "We just didn’t shoot the ball like this team needs to, to win big games, and they did shoot the ball well."
According to NCAA.com, the Bruins have a Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) national rating at 58th, most likely leaving them on the outside looking in for the Big Dance.
"We have been so lucky to not even talk about it or think about it," Byrd said of playing in the NIT. "But we don’t need to think any other way that we are grateful to be in the position to play in the tournament.
" â¦ We need to think about winning games and doing something this program has never done before. We have won one postseason game (in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament). Who knows what this can do and what (Mann) can help lead us to in the future if we can win some postseason games""
Led by Mann, the Bruins’ senior class won four conference regular-season and three tournament titles.
"That’s all I’ve known," Mann said of not making the NCAA tournament. "It may take a while, but once the (NIT) game comes around, it’s not the worst thing in the world, but it’s going to be tough."
"I definitely wish we were playing in the NCAA tournament."