On a night where Belmont converted 15 3-pointers, it was the one that happened in the final seconds that mattered the most.
Taylor Barnette drilled a trey off the screen with 3.2 seconds left to complete Belmont’s 88-87 upset over No. 25 Murray State in the Ohio Valley Conference Championship Saturday.
“I don’t think anyone on our team gets the shot off more quickly than Taylor does and he has great range. I knew that he wouldn’t miss it because of the situation,” said Belmont coach Rick Byrd. “It was the matter of going for the win instead of going for the tie.”
Belmont claimed its fourth conference tournament title in five years and became the first team in the country to punch its ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
“Coach called the play up and it is usually run for Nick [Smith]. I was excited when he drew it up for me. Nick set a great screen, Reece [Chamberlain] made a great pass. It still seems like it didn’t go in. It’s surreal,” said Barnette.
The Bruins’ defense contained the Racers in the opening minutes while Belmont jumped out to the early 13-6 lead behind a pair of threes from Craig Bradshaw.
Nick Smith knocked down Belmont’s seventh three of the half which pushed his team’s lead to double-digits, 29-19 with 10 minutes remaining in the first.
But the Racers clawed back with a 30-12 run to close out the half and headed into the locker room with the 49-41 advantage.
“The last 10 minutes of the first half, it looked like men and boys. We could not stop them and I didn’t have any answers. All I could say was ‘guard your man’ but that wasn’t working,” said Byrd.
While the Racers shut down the forward for most of the first, sophomore Evan Bradds exploded inside the paint for the Bruins and scored the team’s first eight points to start the second half.
From there, both teams exchanged multiple leads back and forth as they continued to knock down shot after shot from behind the arc.
Overall, the game saw 12 lead changes and 10 ties.
Murray State point guard Cameron Payne scored five straight points to give the Racers a 87-85 advantage.
With nine seconds left, a clock mishap required the inbound to be replayed but Belmont called a timeout during which Byrd decided to change the play.
“I thought, I’m not sure if I want to go to overtime. I had called a play to get two and tie the game. Because of the way we lined up, it showed them kind of what we were going to do,” said Byrd. “So we did change the play. But as it turns it, it was the best thing that could have happened.”
The Racers maintained the final possession but their leading scorer T.J. Sapp couldn’t get the shot off before time expired. Sapp finished with a game-high 28 points.
Barnette received MVP for the conference tournament for his game-winning heroics while Bradds and Bradshaw were named to the All-Tournament team.
Bradds finished with the game’s only double-double with 21 points and 11 rebounds and Bradshaw added a team-high 25 points.
The entire NCAA Tournament field and seeding will be revealed on Selection Sunday March 15.