Babington’s 24 points leads Austin Peay over Tennessee State 82-64 for OVC title
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP)—The Austin Peay Governors gathered in a circle at midcourt and started dancing. As Todd Babington sliced off a piece of the net to wear around his right ear, he cut the knuckle on his left index finger.
It’s a celebration the Governors missed a year ago, and they aren’t about to let anything stop them from partying now.
“I’m going to wear this for a while,” Babington said of his new accessory.
He scored 24 points, and Austin Peay earned its sixth NCAA tournament berth and first since 2003 by beating Tennessee State 82-64 on Saturday for the Ohio Valley Conference tournament championship.
The Governors (24-10) tied the school record for victories in a season, set in 1956-57 and matched in 1976-77, by winning their fourth OVC tournament title in their 15th appearance in this game. This was the fourth time in five years the Govs had played for a trip to the NCAA tournament.
But this victory offered salvation for a senior-laden team that had a lead in the final seconds of this title game a year ago only to watch Eastern Kentucky hit a last-second shot for a 63-62 win. Coach Dave Loos said his Governors played as if they would not be denied.
“The fact they were denied once, they’re going to cherish this because they were awfully close one other time,” Loos said.
Loos remembers one title game when his team led by 20 in the second half and lost, a fact he reminded his current Governors about during a timeout. He said they looked at him and said that wasn’t possible.
“Needless to say, having been on the other side several times, I really cherish this. This is a great feeling. I appreciate their efforts,” Loos said.
The Tigers (15-17) had celebrated reaching the semifinals by shaving their heads, at least those with hair long enough to cut, into mohawks. This was Tennessee State’s first appearance in the tourney championship since 1998, and the Tigers haven’t won the OVC title since 1994.
Derek Wright added 13 points for Austin Peay, while Drake Reed had 11 and Fernandez Lockett 10.
Jerrell Houston led the Tigers with 25 points, Reilly Ervin had 13 and Darius Cox 12.
“They came into this game on a mission, and they outplayed us,” Tennessee State coach Cy Alexander said. “There’s nothing else we can say.”
Bruce Price scored just four points for Tennessee State. He had been their leading scorer at 18 points a game in his first season back in two years after tearing the same anterior cruciate ligament in 2005 and 2006. He blamed himself for the loss even as Loos lauded his perseverance.
“I didn’t have a good game at all. I think that I probably didn’t come with the game I should’ve come with. Hats off to them, they did a good job containing me I guess. That’s the best way I can put it,” Price said. “I just didn’t bring it like I should have, bottom line.”
Just being in this game is big improvement for Tennessee State. This is the program maybe best known for having its woman athletic director step in and coach the men, ironically against Austin Peay, in February 2003 after the team’s interim coach had been suspended after a benches clearing brawl.
That athletic director, Teresa Phillips, hired Alexander away from South Carolina State, and he has been busy in his five seasons building back the Tigers. Alexander said this was a major step.
“It’s now up to Jerrell Houston, Gerald Robinson, Darius Cox and the remaining players and incoming recruits to take this program, keep this program at this level and take it hopefully to postseason play,” Alexander said.
Experience definitely helped the Governors.
Three of their seniors are starters, and all three average in double digits.
The game looked like it would be another thriller similar to what the teams played Feb. 2 when Austin Peay pulled out a 79-78 victory on its home court. They swapped the lead six times with four ties, the last on a steal and tomahawk dunk by Robinson with 11:43 left.
Then Austin Peay went on a 11-2 run started by Babington’s fourth 3 of the half and capped by a drive and layup by Reed for his first points of the game and a 29-20 lead with 6:52 to go. Derek Wright hit a 3-pointer and added another basket for a 40-26 halftime lead.
Tennessee State tried to get back in the game in the second half. Ervin hit a 3, then Cox scored on a putback to pull within 45-34 with 16:50 remaining. Babington answered with another 3, Wright scored on a layup, and Babington hit a layup followed by a jumper from Wright that put Austin Peay up 54-34 with 14:23 to go.
The Tigers only got colder from there. They were 12-of-36 in the second half.
Babington’s sixth and final 3 gave the Governors their biggest lead, 72-50 with 4:26 left.