Cameron Payne’s heroics have kept Murray State’s NCAA Tournament hopes alive, but a dramatic ending also did the same for Belmont’s.
Payne and the No. 25 Racers go for a 26th straight win Saturday night against the upset-minded Bruins in the championship game of the Ohio Valley Conference tournament.
Payne leads the conference with 20.3 points per game, and he’s averaging 25.2 while hitting 41.5 percent from 3-point range over the last five contests.
The sophomore guard hit a crucial 3 on Friday, putting top-seeded Murray State (27-4) ahead for good with 54 seconds left as it rallied from 11 down to beat Morehead State 80-77 in the semifinals.
“I’m sorry I keep saying it’s a blessing,” said Payne, who had 25 points. “I’m too happy. I didn’t really know what to say because I’m still in shock we ended up pulling this game out.”
The Bruins (21-10) may share that sentiment after running their winning streak to six with a 53-52 victory over reigning OVC tournament champion Eastern Kentucky on Friday. Evan Bradds converted a pair of free throws with 26 seconds left before Amanze Egekeze rebounded a miss in the final second, advancing Belmont to a third straight conference tournament final.
“Every kid dreams while in his backyard playing having to hit one or two free throws to win the game for his team,” said Bradds, a 64.0 percent shooter at the line. “I was a little comfortable but a little nerve-racking because I am not the greatest free-throw shooter.”
Belmont is looking to bounce back offensively after shooting 34.5 percent from the floor against the Colonels – 13.0 lower than its season mark.
The Bruins’ 74.0 scoring average is second in the conference, but Murray State is the leader at 78.8.
The Racers, though, were even better in their only meeting with Belmont, shooting 55.9 percent from the floor – 11 for 24 from 3-point range – while cruising to a 92-77 home victory Jan. 15.
While Murray State had six players score in double digits, Payne led the way with 23. He also scored 29 against the Bruins in a 99-96 road defeat on Feb. 6, 2014.
Jarvis Williams has totaled 40 points and 23 rebounds in those meetings with Belmont. The senior forward enters this one after scoring 23 points with 10 boards Friday, combining with Payne to rally the Racers.
“These guys have grown, and they’ve really sold out and bought into one another,” coach Steve Prohm said. “Hopefully, we can finish this out.”
For Belmont to do it, it’ll likely need a better performance from Craig Bradshaw, the team leader at 17.9 points per game. The junior guard had 12 Friday, missing 13 of 18 from the field and nine of 11 from behind the arc after hitting 11 of 19 3s and totaling 46 points in the two previous games.
Bradshaw had 16 points against Murray State in January, while Taylor Barnette led the Bruins with 19.