NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Rick Byrd planned to play for the tie and overtime. Officials stopped the game after a clock malfunction, forcing the Belmont coach to take a timeout and switch plays after having shown his hand.
And Taylor Barnette made it pay off.
Barnette hit an off-balance 3-pointer with 3.2 seconds left, and Belmont upset No. 25 Murray State 88-87 on Saturday night to win the Ohio Valley Conference tournament championship and clinch its seventh NCAA Tournament berth.
“As it turns out, it was the best thing that could’ve happened,” Byrd said.
The Bruins (22-10) improved to 7-1 in conference tournament finals — all in the past decade. They knocked off defending tournament champ Eastern Kentucky in the semifinals and beat Murray State, the regular-season champ, to earn their first NCAA berth since 2013 when they needed overtime to beat the Racers in the title game.
“This one’s special because I didn’t expect our team to be able to do it frankly,” Byrd said of team with only two seniors playing in this game. “I didn’t think it wasn’t possible. We’re just so young.”
Murray State had one last chance, but T.J. Sapp’s deep 3 came nowhere near the basket before the buzzer.
Racers coach Steve Prohm said he blew it and probably should have called a timeout to set up the final shot.
“You second-guess a lot of things,” Prohm said.
The Racers (27-5) couldn’t add a perfect run through the tournament to the first undefeated league record in the program’s history. The Racers snapped a 25-game winning streak that had been second only to No. 1 Kentucky, and Prohm wasted no time lobbying for an at-large NCAA berth and noted the success of the OVC in recent years.
“You play a Belmont-Rick Byrd team and go play Belmont in Nashville or go in at Belmont,” Prohm said. “We’re very, very deserving if you look at what we’ve done and you’ve watched us play. … These guys deserve it. I hope we get an opportunity. If not, we’ll be gracious about it and go play in the NIT.”
Cameron Payne hit two free throws with 20.7 seconds left putting Murray State ahead for the last time at 87-85. Nick Smith missed a 3 for Belmont wide right of the basket with 11 seconds left, but the Bruins had one last chance throwing the ball in with 9.1 seconds remaining after the stop and timeout. The Bruins usually run the play for Smith but went with Barnett.
Barnette, scoreless in the first half, tossed in the winning 3 with a defender in his face.
“It still seems like it didn’t go in,” Barnette said. “But it’s just surreal.”
That was the 12th and final lead change in a game that also had 10 ties keeping fans on their feet for much of the second half. Both teams shot 50 percent or better.
Craig Bradshaw scored 25 points for Belmont, and Evan Bradds added 21. Smith finished with 16 as the Bruins knocked down 15 3-pointers.
Sapp finished with a career-high 28 points. Payne, the OVC player of the year, finished with 20 points. Jeffery Moss added 12, Jarvis Williams 11 and Jonathan Fairell 10.
Belmont jumped on the Racers from the start, thanks to hitting eight 3-pointers, and the Bruins jumped out to a 29-19 lead. Murray State finished the half on a 30-12 run, and the Racers took the lead at 37-36 on a one-handed dunk by Fairell with 4:52 left. They took a 49-41 lead into halftime.
Bradds scored 10 straight for the Bruins to get them back into the game, setting up another thrilling finish between these teams.
Belmont: The Bruins have made the second-most 3s nationally since moving from NAIA to Division I in 1996-97, second only to Duke. … They outrebounded Murray State 36-29. … They now are 7-1 all-time in conference tournament title games. … The Bruins came into this season as one of only six D-I programs to win 26 games or more each of the past four seasons.
Murray State: The Racers outshot Belmont 52.4 percent (33 of 63) to 50.8 percent (33 of 65). … The Racers now are 63-35 all-time in the OVC tournament and 15-11 in the tournament championship.
Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.