NASHVILLE, Tenn. - - Belmont University men's basketball dropped a 79-73 decision to Eastern Kentucky in the 2014 OVC Championship game Saturday night.
The Bruins, fresh off an historic fifth consecutive regular season conference championship, were looking to claim a fourth straight conference tournament championship and become the first program in America to earn seven automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament in the last nine years.
But standing in Belmont's way was a formidable Eastern Kentucky squad. The Colonels, dubbed OVC favorite in the preseason and tournament No. 3 seed, defeated Southeast Missouri and Murray State to reach the championship game.
With visions of Kerron Johnson's late-game heroics in the 2013 OVC Championship game fresh in mind, the Bruins looked to build upon Friday night's impressive victory over Morehead State.
Belmont entered play with a 6-0 conference championship game record in its NCAA era and a staggering 19-2 mark in conference tournament games since 2006. The Bruins also sought to replicate quick starts from past championship game triumphs.
Instead, Eastern Kentucky flipped the script.
As Belmont endured six empty trips to open, the Colonels buried four consecutive shots from behind the arc to lead 12-0 just 3:35 into the game.
An emphatic slam from sophomore Craig Bradshaw (Ridgetop, Tenn.) got Belmont on the board, before a Marcus Lewis baseline three-pointer extended the Eastern Kentucky lead to 17-2 with 14:07 left in the half.
Junior Reece Chamberlain (Goodlettsville, Tenn.) capped a 7-0 Belmont response to close the margin to 17-9.
But the torrid Colonel pace continued; two three-pointers from Glenn Cosey made the score 28-14 with 8:07 left in the half.
Despite foul trouble for Chamberlain and Bradshaw, the Bruins continued to chip away behind the leadership of senior J.J. Mann (Smyrna, Ga.). Consecutive three-pointers from freshman Caleb Chowbay (Mt. Juliet, Tenn.) and senior Drew Windler (South Milwaukee, Wis.) got Belmont within 28-20 with under seven minutes left in the half.
Both teams relied on free throw shooting for offense late in the half, before freshman Evan Bradds (Jamestown, Ohio) narrowed the margin to 34-28.
A short jumper from Cosey gave Eastern Kentucky an eight point halftime lead.
Belmont shot 40 percent (8-for-20) from the field in the opening 20 minutes – including 4-for-11 from three-point distance. Mann led Belmont with 12 first half points.
After working back into the game, the Bruins were dealt a few difficult momentum blows to open the second half. Following a strong defensive possession that forced an Eastern Kentucky baseline out-of-bounds play with two seconds remaining on the shot clock, Corey Walden made a wing three-pointer that appeared to come after the shot clock had expired. Then after Windler rimmed out a promising three-point attempt, Walden followed with a layin to increase the Colonel lead to 41-28 with 18:41 left.
A slam from senior Blake Jenkins (Knoxville, Tenn.) and a Mann layin got Belmont within 41-35 with 16:44 remaining.
The Bruins limited Eastern Kentucky to one made field goal over a five minute stretch to push closer. Another Windler three-pointer and a Bradds baseline drive made the score 47-43 with 11:31 left.
Cosey halted the run, before two Jenkins free throws got Belmont within 51-50 with 7:47 remaining.
The Bruin support section rose as one, as Belmont looked poised to seize its first lead of the game. But after one Marcus Lewis free throw, Belmont had two clean looks for three rim off.
Chamberlain would tie the score at 52 with 6:31 left.
Following two Eric Stutz free throws, Bradds again scored along the baseline to tie the game at 54 with 5:56 left.
But once again, Cosey and Walden had a stern reply. Each made deep three-pointers during an 8-0 run that gave Eastern Kentucky a 62-54 advantage with 4:28 remaining.
A Mann three-pointer got the Bruins within 63-59 with 2:58 left, before Walden answered with a basket inside.
Bradds again brought Belmont within four with 2:14 remaining, but Cosey broke Bruin hearts with another deep wing three-pointer late in the shot clock to push the Colonels back up seven with 1:39 to go.
Belmont executed well down the stretch, but Eastern Kentucky went 9-for-10 from the free throw line in the final 1:16 to secure the game.
All told, Belmont shot 46 percent (23-for-50) from the field – including 8-for-24 from three-point distance. The Bruins committed only 11 turnovers against a Colonel squad forcing 17 per game on average.
Aside from the plus-nine yield from behind the arc, Eastern Kentucky got 52 points and 12 assists from Cosey and Walden, and that told the tale.
Eastern Kentucky scored 52 points in the paint against Murray State in the OVC semifinal round, but Belmont limited the Colonels to only 22 points in the paint Saturday.
Mann led four Bruins in double figures with 18 points. Bradds tallied a double-double of 14 points and 10 rebounds. Windler also scored 14, while Chamberlain added 13 points and seven assists.
Belmont (24-9) will learn of its postseason fate Sunday, March 16.
NOTE: Mann and Jenkins head into postseason with a career record of 107-29.