Ohio Valley Tournament Semifinal Notes
by Phil Kasiecki
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The semifinals of the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament are in the books on a snowy night outside. The championship matchup is set, with the top seed set to take on a surprise contender with an NCAA Tournament bid on the line.
Austin Peay is back in the title game after a 78-77 win over UT-Martin. They will take on Tennessee State, which entered as the No. 6 seed, after the Tigers took out Murray State 83-75 in the nightcap. Both games had plenty of drama, and the outcome of each was in doubt until at least the final minute.
Semifinals Honor Roll
Wes Channels, Austin Peay: 16 points, 3 assists
Fernandez Lockett, Austin Peay: 15 points, 9 rebounds
Lester Hudson, UT-Martin: 31 points, 8 rebounds
Marquis Weddle, UT-Martin: 20 points
Bruce Price, Tennessee State: 20 points, 8 assists
Ray George, Murray State: 25 points on 8-13 shooting (5-7 on three-pointers), 3 assists
Danero Thomas, Murray State: 21 points on 7-9 shooting
Season Forward Ends With a Tough Loss
A season with a lot of firsts and broken records of futility for UT Martin ended on Friday night. Among the highlights:
- The team won at least 10 OVC games for the first time since joining the conference in 1992.
- This was the program’s first trip to the OVC Tournament semifinals.
- Tuesday’s game was their first home game in the conference tournament
- The Skyhawks’ No. 4 seed was the best in the school history.
- Their 17 wins is the most in their Division I history.
Clearly, this season, fresh off one where the Skyhawks went 8-23, was a big step forward.
“I think it was a huge step forward for this program,” said head coach Bret Campbell. “I don’t think many people give Tennessee-Martin a lot of respect and I think we finally earned some respect by our players and our team this year that we could play with anybody.”
The Skyhawks have the conference’s best player in junior Lester Hudson, and also have the Rookie of the Year in promising freshman Marquis Weddle. Hudson, who earlier in the season recorded the NCAA’s first-ever quadruple-double, did everything he could to try to win this game by scoring 22 of his 31 points in the second half. Together, they helped lead a perfect month of February to have them playing well heading into the tournament.
With them at the core of a team that loses just one player, expectations next season are likely to be a little higher than this time around, when the Skyhawks were picked last in the conference in the preseason poll of the conference’s coaches and sports information directors.
“We’re only losing one player this year, we’ve got a great group coming back, and I’ll very much be expecting to be sitting here next year but only on Saturday night,” said Campbell.”
Defense Wins Championships, And Gets Teams There
At times, Austin Peay looked like they could be in danger against UT-Martin in the first semifinal game. The Governors were out-played in the first half, but UT-Martin missed a lot of good opportunities. That might be where the game was lost, but it was a ballgame all the way through.
Early in the second half, Todd Babington got going from long range and the Governors opened up a 60-53 lead at one point. They seemed to be on the verge of breaking it open, but they had to hold off Lester Hudson and the Skyhawks at the end.
While Babington responded to a halftime challenge to get involved, it was the defense that helped change the game for the Governors.
“Once we got a few stops, the body language of everybody just transformed,” said junior forward Drake Reed. “Everybody got a little swagger to them, and we got some big stops and caused some nice turnovers down the stretch.”
Defense got Austin Peay to the title game for the second year in a row. On Saturday, we will see if it wins them a title this time around.
Big Man Gives Unexpectedly Big Boost
A quick look at Tennessee State’s statistics entering Friday’s game would tell you that James Craft wouldn’t seem likely to be a big contributor. His stats are those of a bit player: 7.2 minutes per game, 0.8 points, 1.5 rebounds per game.
But on Friday night, he came through in a big way. Craft scored a career-high 10 points and grabbed four rebounds in 19 minutes, which also tied a career high. A few of his points were also important ones, as he hit two jumpers in the latter part of the second half while Murray State was trying to charge back.
His play was a big reason that after the Tigers took a 58-56 lead with 8:22 left, they never relinquished it. And it wasn’t something that surprised his point guard.
“We could tell he was shooting the ball well in practice the last three days, so we knew to get him the ball,” said Bruce Price, who handed out eight assists to go with his team-high 20 points. “I had no doubt in my mind if I got him the ball, because he’s a great shooter for a seven-footer.”
His coach said the shoot-around earlier in the day gave him an idea that this could happen.
“You coach by gut feeling. I just watched Craft, he wasn’t missing in shoot-around this morning,” said head coach Cy Alexander. “My gut told me to go with him as the first big off the bench, and he still wasn’t missing tonight.”
Career Night Ends College Days for Racer Senior
Ray George has been through a lot in his life, including his high school and college days. He spent time at Mt. Zion in Durham, N.C. early in his high school days, back when the school was a national power. He bounced around on travel teams, later wound up at Coastal Christian in Virginia, and still didn’t get to Division I despite having talent.
George instead spent two years at Georgia Perimeter College, where he averaged 20 points, 8.6 assists and 4.8 steals per game. Never known as a shooter, he even shot 55.2 percent from long range. That got him an opportunity at Murray State, and while he wasn’t a star, he contributed to the team’s success.
After scoring a career-high 25 points, including going 5-7 from long range, George was clearly distraught after the game. He’s come a long way in life and on the basketball court, and with his career over, he now closes in on his degree.
“In the last month, we had a good meeting and I’m really thankful that he was able to play as well as he did because he’s worked real hard on his game, he’s worked hard on doing the things I want him to do,” said head coach Billy Kennedy.
In many ways, George paralleled Lester Hudson on this Friday night. Both have been through well-documented struggles and had to go the junior college route before playing Division I basketball. Hudson did all he could to bring his team back in the evening’s opening game, and George did all he could in the nightcap as he scored 17 of his points in the second stanza. Kennedy took a chance on George, and vice versa given that Kennedy had just taken over as the head coach, and while they had ups and downs, the program moved forward and so did George.
Young Talent on Display
Mid-majors are often known for winning with experience, but Friday night wasn’t quite that. Of the 20 starters in the two games, only six were seniors, while four were freshmen. Add in some young reserves, and it’s clear that there is some good young talent.
Besides Weddle, the Rookie of the Year, UT-Martin starts forward Benzor Simmons, while Tennessee State starts Gerald Robinson, Jr. and Darius Cox. Robinson is the next best of the bunch, as he made the conference All-Rookie team and has a lot of potential, as he’s skilled and plays with a lot of confidence. Cox is third on the Tigers in rebounding and should grow into a good player, while Simmons is a role player who came on late in the year to move into the starting lineup.
This leads to Saturday’s championship, which will feature an experienced group with three senior starters in Austin Peay going up against a Tennessee State team that starts one senior and two freshmen. It’s a little different than last year, when two teams that were relatively inexperienced met in the title game.