Cornell got things started on Friday night with their third consecutive NCAA Tournament berth and three more guaranteed themselves spots in the Field of 65 on Saturday. In the most anticipated of the three finals it was Murray State picking up their 30th win of the season, dethroning defending Ohio Valley champ Morehead State 62-51 in Nashville. Isaiah Canaan scored 16 points off the bench to lead the way for Billy Kennedy's team, who will represent the OVC in the Big Dance for the first time since 2006. And true to the team's balance all five starters scored between seven and nine points while Morehead State struggled mightily on offense outside of Demonte Harper (20 points). Murray played solid defense and was able to pull away in the second half once they knocked down a few shots.
"I thought we played hard defensively the whole time and when you start making shots and scoring your defense gets even that much better," said Coach Kennedy, who also described the win as a relief (quote courtesy of the Ohio Valley Conference). That's the sad truth for a few teams in one-bid leagues: the pressure to "validate" a season's excellence their year comes down to a weekend that can play out like a crapshoot. The Racers are a dangerous team due to their depth and balance; they'll likely end up with a fourteen seed and scare the you-know-what out of someone in the first round. And as for conference tournaments being a roll of the dice look no further than the Atlantic Sun, which saw three of its top four seeds bounced in the quarters.
But when that tournament ended it was East Tennessee State that won, picking up their second consecutive A-Sun title with a 72-66 win over Mercer on the Bears' home court. Justin Tubbs led the Bucs with 18 points while tournament MVP Micah Williams added 13 points and nine rebounds. Five ETSU players reached double figures while E.J. Kusnyer led Mercer with 16 points. Leading scorer James Florence struggled from the field (2-11, 9 points) and Kusnyer scored just four points after halftime but it was turnovers (16) that did in the Bears in the end. Those two were considered to be longshots to even reach the final while Coastal Carolina rolled into the Big South final with a 28-5 record and the title game on their home court.
But that didn't matter to Randy Peele's Winthrop Eagles, who used a 13-3 second half run and some stifling defense to knock off the regular season champs 64-53. Mantoris Robinson led three Eagles in double figures with 14 points and more importantly Winthrop limited CCU to 36.5% shooting and forced 14 turnovers. Similar to their win over Radford on Friday night Coach Peele's team defending the three extremely well as the Chanticleers made just three of eighteen attempts. Winthrop and ETSU are both teams that look to be headed towards a fifteen or sixteen in regards to tournament seeding.
Three Key Happenings
1. Kyle Kuric helps Louisville close out Freedom Hall in style. On what was a special day in the history of Louisville basketball a player who'd scored six points all February went on a special run. Kyle Kuric came off the bench to score 22 second-half points in leading the Cardinals to a 78-68 win over top-ranked Syracuse, their second win of the season over the Orange. The win should push the Cardinals into "lock" status for the NCAA Tournament and gives them a good push into Big East Tournament play. Kuric made nine of eleven shots from the field (4-6 3PT), entering the game when Reginald Delk left due to a cramp.
"He may be their best shooter, we just don't know because he doesn't play that much," said Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim. "I've never seen anyone come off the bench and do that (quote courtesy of Louisville Athletics)." And as a team the previously cold Cardinals shot 58.1% from the field in the second half and outscored the Orange 48-33. Scoop Jardine scored 20 points off the bench while Wes Johnson added 18 for Syracuse but it wasn't enough to make up for quiet afternoons from Andy Rautins (1-9, 4 points) and Kris Joseph (1-4, 2 points). And it wasn't enough to account for the hot-shooting Kuric either.
2. Overall, the Atlantic 10's bubble teams had a rough day. The one good result for the conference was Saint Louis' 70-60 win at...Dayton. That should sum up the carnage that took place within the Atlantic 10, which starts on Tuesday a conference tournament that many BCS conference bubblers will observe with high interest. Richmond, Temple and Xavier are all locks at this point but who will (if any) join them? The young Billikens took advantage of a backloaded conference schedule to pick up wins over the Flyers (twice) and Rhode Island while taking Xavier to the brink before falling. But the other three teams limp across the finish line, with Charlotte, Dayton and Rhode Island all taking on "water" that more than likely will sink them come Selection Sunday.
The Rams dropped a 69-67 decision at UMass on Saturday, with Ricky Harris' shot in traffic giving the Minutemen the win and a berth in the conference tournament. Jim Baron's team has lost five of their last seven and host St. Joseph's in the first round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament on Tuesday night. They're going to have to get to Atlantic City and do some serious damage if they're to earn a bid. And the same goes for Charlotte, who lost 89-84 at home to Richmond in overtime. The 49ers went 1-6 in their last seven games and will host UMass on Tuesday; they may have to win the conference tournament and the same goes for Dayton. What once looked to be a six-bid conference could be down to no more than four.
3. Baylor grabs a first-round bye in the Big 12 Tournament. With multiple NBA scouts in attendance Baylor forward Quincy Acy picked the right time to put together one of his best performances of the season. The forward had ten dunks on his way to a career-high 24 points in leading the Bears to the 92-77 win over Texas to wrap up a first-round bye in the Big 12 Tournament and the program's winningest regular season in 64 years. LaceDarius Dunn scored 30 to lead all scorers but Acy's dunks and blocked shots were the talk of the game. Gary Johnson led Texas with 25 points off the bench but outside of Damion James (18 points) Rick Barnes received very little from his starters. What sets Baylor apart is how willing guys are to share the basketball; 23 of their 36 baskets were assisted and this team is a far cry from teams in seasons past that would shoot first and ask questions later. Rest assured this is a team with the ability to make a run in the NCAA Tournament.
Top Three Games
1. Arizona 86, USC 84 (2OT) It was only fitting that Nic Wise would be the one to hit the game-winner for the Wildcats on Senior Day. His shot gave Arizona the victory but if not for Kyle Fogg hitting three free throws with two-tenths of a second remaining in regulation things never get to that point.
2. Notre Dame 63, Marquette 60 (OT) Carleton Scott came up big for the Irish at the end of regulation, knocking down a three off of a scramble situation just as time expired. That allowed Notre Dame to win in the extra session and lock up a first round bye in the Big East Tournament, as well as give them a solid win for NCAA Tournament purposes.
3. West Virginia 68, Villanova 66 (OT) Da'Sean Butler's shot with 5.8 seconds left in overtime gave the Mountaineers an important road win going into the Big East Tournament. Butler led all scorers with 24 points while also grabbing ten rebounds.
Three Notable Performances
1. C Patrick Sullivan (Southeast Louisiana St) Sullivan ended his regular season in grand fashion, scoring 24 points while also grabbing 17 rebounds and blocking five shots in the Lions' 86-77 win over Northwestern State.
2. F Gilberto Clavell (Sam Houston St) Clavell scored 35 points and grabbed ten rebounds in the Bearkats' 101-97 overtime loss to Texas State.
3. G David Gonzalvez (Richmond) The senior helped lead the Spiders to the 89-84 overtime win at Charlotte with 29 points and 10 rebounds.