EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) — Jonathan Stark deserved to take a victory lap.
Murray State’s star senior paraded around the Ford Center while waving his school’s flag after a 68-51 victory over Belmont on Saturday night in the Ohio Valley Conference championship game that earned the Racers a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
The league’s player of the year pumped in a game-high 24 points and collected tournament MVP honors after he averaged 27 points the last two days.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Stark said. “We’ve been working since we came here for summer school knowing all those hours would pay off. It finally paid off for us.”
Ja Morant added 15 points, five rebounds and five assists for the Racers (26-5), who became the first team to punch its ticket to the NCAA tournament. They advance for the first time since 2012 and will await to learn their seeding on Sunday, March 11.
Murray State earned revenge over Belmont, which had won the previous two times the schools met in the OVC title game in 2013 and 2015. The Racers also extended their winning streak to 13 in a row. It’s the longest in the nation after Michigan State lost to Michigan in the Big Ten Conference tournament semifinal round earlier Saturday.
A pro-MSU crowd of 4,820 made the 2 1/2-hour drive north to witness all of it.
“I thought our guys really fed off the energy and enthusiasm,” Racers coach Matt McMahon said. “The arena, it was electric in there. To me, that’s what a conference tournament should be.”
It was a four-point game at 52-48 with 6 minutes to go when Terrell Miller buried a 3-pointer from the top of the key that sparked a 16-3 run to put the game out of reach. He added another with 2:24 left to extend the Murray State lead to 67-49 with 2:24 remaining.
Stark and Miller combined for 12 points on just 6-of-21 shooting in the first half. They finished with a combined 35 points.
“I challenged them at the half,” McMahon said. “They weren’t scoring the ball as effectively as we needed them to score. They stepped up and delivered in the second half like they have all year long.”
Murray State made seven 3-pointers and shot 43.8 percent from beyond the arc in the second half. Morant had three treys while Stark and Miller added two apiece.
Belmont led 32-29 at halftime after trailing by 12 early in the game. It used a 15-2 run over the final 6 minutes of the first half to take the lead.
Kevin McClain finished with 17 points and Dylan Windler had 10 for the Bruins.
Murray State: The Racers limited their turnovers to just six, and only had two after halftime. . They scored 13 points off as many Belmont turnovers. . Morant added five rebounds and five assists along with 15 points. . Stark has scored at least 22 points in four straight games.
Belmont: The Bruins were held to 28.0 percent field-goal shooting in the second half and were 1 of 11 from 3-point range. . Amanze Egekeze, who tied an OVC tournament record with nine 3-pointers in Friday’s semifinal win over Austin Peay, shot 1 of 10 from the perimeter.
HE SAID IT
“Just really proud of our guys,” McMahon said. “They’ve been awesome every single day, all year long. Really sold out to the team, committed to each other and played for each other all year and stepped up with a big-time effort tonight. Defense was terrific. Best job we did all season long from a communication standpoint.”
Murray State: The Racers matched their highest win total in six years, when they went 31-2 and were the No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Belmont: The Bruins have won at least 20 games each season since they left the Atlantic Sun and joined the OVC in 2013.
Murray State: NCAA Tournament.
Belmont: Hoping for an invite to the National Invitation Tournament.