Nashville, TN (Sports Network) - The Ohio Valley Conference's West and East Division Champions will square off with a trip to the NCAA Tournament on the line on Saturday as Murray State defends its tournament title against the Belmont Bruins.
Belmont defeated every conference rival it faced but one during its first tour of the OVC. Unfortunately for Rick Byrd's squad, that one team is the one it will battle for the conference tourney trophy on Saturday. Murray State jumped out to a big lead before hanging on for a 79-74 decision over the Bruins on Feb. 7. The win improved the Racers to 5-1 all-time against Belmont.
Steve Prohm had a dream season a year ago in his first experience as a head coach, as his Racers managed to stay undefeated longer than any other team in the nation before going on the win the OVC Tournament. Murray State did enough to win the West Division title in 2012-13, but it was nowhere near as smooth of a ride. The Racers were upset by Tennessee-Martin and SE Missouri State in their final two regular season games but took care of business in the semifinal round on Friday as they downed Eastern Kentucky, 81-73.
As per usual, Isaiah Canaan led the way for Murray State on Friday with 29 points and six assists. His effort pushed his career total past the seldom visited 2,000-point mark. Canaan, who was named OVC Co-Player of the Year earlier this week, is the nation's sixth-leading scorer at 21.6 ppg. Stacy Wilson chipped in 17 points while Brandon Garrett tallied 11 points and six boards. Ed Daniel, who joined Canaan on the OVC First Team, scored nine points and grabbed six boards after playing just 14 minutes because of foul trouble. MSU played exceptionally well on the offensive end, hitting on 58 percent of their field goal tries and finishing with 20 assists to eight turnovers.
Belmont won its final four regular season games before avenging a Feb. 14 loss to Tennessee State in the semifinals with an 82-73 victory over the Tigers. The Bruins trailed, 21-12, about 10 minutes after tip-off before they stormed back to take a 32-29 halftime lead. The win improved Belmont to 17-2 in conference tournament games since 2006. It dominated the Atlantic Sun before entering the OVC prior to this season.
The other half of the OVC's co-MVP award will be looking to duplicate his performance from Friday as well. Ian Clark went 6-of-10 from 3-point range as he poured in 26 points versus TSU to lead the way, while Kerron Johnson made a huge impact of his own with 23 points and seven assists. J.J. Mann added 13 points and four steals for the Bruins, while Blake Jenkins tallied 10 points and seven rebounds. Clark nets 18.4 ppg with exceptional accuracy from both the field (.545) and beyond the arc (.469) and Johnson is a regular contributor of 13.8 ppg. Their leadership helped Belmont pace the OVC in both scoring offense and scoring defense, outscoring the opposition by an average of 13.5 ppg.