Three Teams Punch Their Tickets to the Big Dance

March 4th, 2012

The first three bids to the NCAA tournament were handed out on Saturday, with the game drawing the greatest amount of attention being the OVC title game between Murray State and Tennessee State. The reason: this is the time of the year when bubble teams actively watch the scoreboard in hopes that no unexpected competitors would show up on the landscape. At 29-1 entering the title game it was clear that Steve Prohm's team would be an "unexpected competitor" for an at-large bid and the Racers were going to receive one had they lost to the Tigers. 

However Jewuan Long removed any doubt with a shot in the final seconds, giving Murray State the 54-52 win and their second OVC tournament title in the last three years. The Racers found a way to win a game that was played at a slower pace than either of the two regular season meetings, and it's not as if that was the only issue. Murray State was out-rebounded by ten (34-24) and they shot just 37.5% from the field, making four of eighteen shots from beyond the arc. In a game that finished with just 57 possessions (compared to 71 and 65 in the two regular season contests) those problems normally are too much to overcome, but the Racers found a way. 

"[Tennessee State] had a great game plan and slowed it down on the offensive end," remarked Murray State head coach Steve Prohm, who won a conference title in his first season as head coach. "They made us work for everything." 

Isaiah Canaan and Donte Poole scored 14 points apiece to lead Murray State, who will be an interesting team to watch on Selection Sunday from a seeding standpoint given the disparity between their ranking in the polls and where they stand in the various computer rankings. As for the Tigers, there's little solace in coming close to winning a conference title and if anything it hurts even more given the fact that they had a chance to take the lead on the possession before Long's shot. But Tennessee State turned the ball over, and their 18th turnover of the day proved to be the costliest. 

"We did a good job defensively," said TSU head coach John Cooper. "Just down the stretch we had about four possessions where we came up empty. We don't score or we don't get anything down the stretch and that's hard to do as a team and really try to finish a game out." 

Finishing the game out wasn't an issue for either UNC Asheville or Belmont, both of whom won their respective conference titles and earned a return trip to the Big Dance. UNC Asheville got out of the gates quickly against VMI, scoring the first six points on the game before the Keydets made their charge. The two teams were tied at 47 with just over 15 minutes remaining and that's where the Bulldogs would make their run, outscoring the Keydets 29-10 over the next eleven minutes to build a lead that proved insurmountable.

And it was the Big South Player of the Year, Matt Dickey, who was the catalyst despite not playing well in either of Asheville's two games leading up to the final. Dickey scored 15 points and all five starters reached double figures, which proved quite easy to do given their 24 assists on 29 made field goals. And once again it was UNC Asheville who was able to force turnovers against VMI as Duggar Baucom's team, which turned the ball over 17 times in both regular season meetings, turned the ball over 20 times on Saturday. The end result: an 80-64 defeat. 

As for Belmont, Rick Byrd's team got off to a slow start against a Florida Gulf Coast team making its first-ever appearance in the A-Sun title game. The Bruins trailed by as many as 12 points in the first half before closing to within four at the half, but they kept after it. Belmont would ultimately win 80-64 thanks in large part to guard Kerron Johnson, who was named MVP after putting up 14 points, 11 rebounds and five assists.

Blake Jenkins scored 15 points and Scott Saunders 14 (and ten rebounds), and the Bruins' edges in rebounding (44-30) and at the foul line (21-25 to 9-16 for the Eagles) proved to be too much for FGCU to overcome in the end. Drew Hanlen's three with 18:11 remaining gave the Bruins a lead they wouldn't relinquish, and while their record isn't as good as it was last season Belmont will be a tough matchup for some higher seed.

Seeds and matchups are all discussions for another day however, as the three winners on Saturday are focused more on the accomplishment of a goal set at the beginning of the season. Congrats to Belmont, Murray State and UNC Asheville on earning their automatic bids to the NCAA tournament.   

Five Notable Performances 

1. G Jamaal Franklin (San Diego State)
35 points, 13 rebounds and five assists in the Aztecs' 98-92 overtime win at TCU.

2. G Will Barton (Memphis)
30 points (12-17 FG), nine rebounds, four assists and three steals in the Tigers' 78-66 win at Tulsa. 

3. F Jae Crowder (Marquette)
26 points, 14 rebounds, five steals and three assists in the Golden Eagles' 83-69 win over Georgetown.

4. F Drew Gordon (New Mexico State)
30 points and 12 rebounds in the Lobos' 76-61 win over Boise State.

5. G Pierre Jackson (Baylor)
35 points, five rebounds and three assists in the Bears' 80-72 loss at Iowa State.