NASHVILLE, Tenn. - - Taylor Barnette sank a three-pointer with 3.2 seconds remaining to lift Belmont University men's basketball to a dramatic 88-87 victory over [25/24] Murray State Saturday in the 2015 Ohio Valley Conference Championship to secure the Bruins' seventh NCAA Tournament berth in 10 years.
The game marked the fifth meeting between Belmont and Murray State in the Bruins' three-year OVC history. In short order, a compelling, passionate rivalry was forged between two of college basketballs premier mid-major programs.
The series was highlighted by an unforgettable 2013 OVC Championship game, which saw Kerron Johnson ('13) sink the game-tying and game-winning shots in Belmont's 70-68 overtime victory.
For Belmont, in its third consecutive OVC final and eighth conference tournament final in a decade, the task would arguably be its toughest in program history.
Murray State entered play on a 25-game winning streak – second in the nation to No. 1 Kentucky – which included a 92-77 home win over the Bruins Jan. 15.
The nationally-ranked Racers featured OVC Player of the Year Cameron Payne and All-OVC First Team selection Jarvis Williams among a bevy of talented players. Moreover, Murray State ranked among the NCAA leaders in scoring offense and offensive efficiency.
But following Belmont's emotional 53-52 victory over Eastern Kentucky late Friday, the Bruins were resolute and ready to lay it all on the line.
With that as a backdrop, many expected an uptempo, free-flowing affair.
But few could have anticipated what turned into one of the best college basketball games of this – or any – season.
After a basket from Jonathan Fairell, a layin from sophomore Evan Bradds (Jamestown, Ohio) and another Bradshaw three-pointer increased the margin to seven, 13-6, six minutes in.
T.J. Sapp kept Murray State close early, scoring 11 of the Racers' first 17 points.
But much like its quarterfinal victory over Eastern Illinois, Belmont continued its remarkable stretch of offensive play.
Three pointers from junior Jeff Laidig (Mishawaka, Ind.) and senior Holden Mobley (Nashville, Tenn.) and eight points from sophomore Nick Smith (Bentonville, Ark.) highlighted an onslaught of 14 Belmont points in a 2:23 span that stretched the lead to 10, 29-19, with 10:06 left in the first half.
With the lively crowd entertained with inspiring, end-to-end action, Murray State answered back.
Sapp capped an 11-2 Racer run to close the margin to 31-30 at the 7:55 mark.
A Bradshaw three-pointer gave Belmont a 36-33 advantage, before two Fairell baskets and a Jeffery Moss floater pushed Murray State to a 42-36 edge with 3:03 left in the half.
Smith replied with another baseline three-pointer, before Sapp punctuated his impressive first half with a driving layin to give Murray State a 49-41 lead at halftime.
Belmont shot 44 percent (15-for-34) from the field in the opening 20 minutes – including 9-for-22 from three-point distance. The Bruins outrebounded Murray State, 18-15, and forced six turnovers.
Bradshaw and Smith each had 11 points at the break. Sapp scored 19 first half points.
Murray State closed the half on a 30-12 run.
The Bruins opened the second half much like they did the first: purposeful and determined. In fact, Bradds would score eight points in the opening 3:05 of the second half to get Belmont within 51-49.
Speaking to how hotly-contested things became, neither team would lead by more than one possession for the final 14:55 of regulation.
The Bruin momentum continued as another Smith three-pointer, followed by layins from Mobley and Bradshaw gave Belmont a 56-55 lead with 14:14 remaining.
Both teams delivered one haymaker after another; Sapp and Bradshaw would exchange driving layins, Moss and Smith would exchange interior baskets, Payne and Bradshaw would exchange deep three-pointers.
After missing his first five field goal attempts, Barnette would put Belmont on top, 70-67, with 8:31 remaining. He would be heard from again.
Sapp quickly answered back with five straight points, before Bradshaw buried his fifth three-pointer to help Belmont regain the lead, 73-72, with 7:06 left.
The level of play for a championship game was nothing short of legendary.
Five points from Payne and a Williams slam put the Racers ahead 79-77 with 4:43 to go.
Bradds cut the margin in half with one free throw, and Belmont would scratch out two defensive stops.
Chamberlain then sank a contested bank shot with 3:10 left to give the Bruins an 80-79 lead.
Moss would tie the score with one free throw at the 2:54 mark.
From there, Belmont worked a rare offensive possession that labored. Late in the shot clock, Barnette banked a deep three-pointer with 2:25 remaining to push the Bruins ahead, 83-80.
After Chamberlain drew a charging foul on Payne, Bradshaw had a wing three-point look rim out.
Sapp would be fouled on a drive with 1:45 left and sink both free throws to trim the margin to one.
Equal parts electricity and anxiety grew with each and every possession.
After the Sapp free throws, Belmont ran a gorgeous play to free Bradshaw along the baseline for a layin and an 85-82 lead with 1:27 left.
Moments later, Payne lost the handle and Barnette came up with a steal.
As he dribbled into the frontcourt and gathered to set up the Bruin offense as the clock approached one minute, the ball slipped out of his hands and right into the hands of Fairell.
The big man quickly found Payne, who made a 28-footer with 1:06 left to tie the game at 85.
Then after Chamberlain missed a contested layin, Payne would be fouled on a drive with 20 seconds remaining.
He made both free throws to put Murray State ahead 87-85.
The swing of emotion for Belmont in a 45-second span was massive; up three points with possession to suddenly down two points and in need of a play.
After Payne's free throws, the Bruins elected to play freely, dialing up a wing three-pointer for Smith with 12 seconds left.
But the shot missed long and right, causing Murray State difficulty in securing the rebound. The ball bounced off a Racer player out of bounds with nine seconds left.
From there, Belmont head coach Rick Byrd called timeout to draft one of his signature specialty scoring plays.
But out of the timeout, as the ball was being inbounded, a clock malfunction halted play and prompted the officials to the scorer's table.
Once order was restored, Belmont found Chamberlain, who drove right and passed back to Barnette, who drilled a deep, lean-back three-pointer with 3.2 seconds remaining to put the Bruins ahead 88-87.
After an exchange of strategic timeouts by each side, Murray State inbounded to Sapp in the backcourt. He sped into the frontcourt, but the horn sounded before he could attempt a final shot from 30 feet.
The Bruins erupted in jubilation following one of the greatest victories in program history.
All told, Belmont shot 51 percent (33-for-65) from the field – including 58 percent in the second half. The Bruins were 15-for-38 from three-point distance, and outrebounded Murray State, 36-29.
Bradshaw led three Bruins in double figures with 25 points. Bradds added 21 points and 11 rebounds. Smith scored 16.
Sapp led Murray State (27-5) with 28 points.
Barnette, Bradshaw and Bradds were named to the All-Tournament Team, with Barnette named Tournament Most Valuable Player.
Belmont (22-10) awaits its NCAA Tournament destiny Sunday, March 15 during the CBS NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Selection Show. The program is set to air at 5 p.m. CT.
NOTES: Belmont earns its seventh NCAA Tournament automatic bid in 10 years, the most in the nation over that span … Belmont has now won 14 conference championships (seven tournament, seven regular season) since 2006 … Only Kansas has won more over that span … Belmont is 7-1 lifetime in conference championship games and 22-3 in conference tournament games since 2006 … Murray State is the second nationally-ranked opponent Belmont has defeated in as many seasons; Belmont defeated No. 11 North Carolina Nov. 17, 2013 … After securing their 100th career victory Friday night in the OVC semifinal round victory over Eastern Kentucky, seniors Reece Chamberlain, Holden Mobley and Spencer Turner secure a third NCAA Tournament appearance in four years … Chamberlain averaged 9.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 9.3 assists per game in the OVC Tournament … Smith was one shy of his career-high of 17 points, established earlier this season vs. Trevecca Nazarene (11/19/14) … Belmont improves to 13-4 in games decided by two possessions or less … Belmont has won seven consecutive games.