The most thrilling game the first week of conference tournament play has produced so far featured a moment that epitomizes the emotions of March.
As Belmont's Kerron Johnson backpedaled down court grinning and pumping his fist after hitting an overtime game-winning jumper, Murray State's Isaiah Canaan stood motionless with a grimace on his face no doubt bemoaning his unforced error that set up the shot.
Murray State had a chance to attempt a go-ahead shot on its final possession, but Canaan turned the ball over when he bounced the ball off his foot and into the backcourt with 25 seconds left in overtime. Johnson dribbled out most of the clock on Belmont's ensuing possession before beating his defender off the dribble and sinking the go-ahead shot from the left elbow with 1.2 seconds left, propelling the Bruins to a 70-68 victory in the Ohio Valley Conference title game.
The heroics from Johnson ensure Belmont won't spend a nervous eight days wondering if it had done enough to earn an at-large bid. The Bruins boasted a gaudy 26-6 record and a top 30 RPI, but they would have likely been one of the last teams in or out with a loss on Saturday because their list of quality wins isn't as strong as what other bubble teams had piled up.
There's no at-large safety net for Murray State to fall back on, so this is a crushing loss for the Racers.
Despite the return of Isaiah Canaan and Ed Daniel from last year's team that started 23-0 and made the round of 32 of the NCAA tournament, Murray State lacked the depth or complementary talent it had a year ago. Canaan led the Racers to decent wins over St. John's, Auburn and Evansville in non-league play, but the team faltered down the stretch in its league, finishing just 10-6 in the OVC.
Murray State played at a high level in the OVC semifinals and finals, actually building a seven-point lead with 3:10 left in regulation on a Stacy Wilson 3-pointer. The Racers could have put the game away at the free throw line when Daniel was fouled with a two-point lead and 20 seconds left, but he missed both, enabling Johnson to hit a turnaround jumper in the lane to force overtime with nine seconds to go.
That Daniel's missed free throws and Canaan's dribbling gaffe came in perhaps their final collegiate games is a classic example of the cruelty of March. Both those players were instrumental in one of the greatest periods in Murray State hoops history, so they certainly deserved a better finish than that.
Murray State's loss is Belmont's gain.
The Bruins have been a popular upset pick in the opening round of NCAA tournament play the past two seasons, but they've been unable to topple Wisconsin and Georgetown. With a potent backcourt featuring Johnson and defensive stopper Ian Clark, they'll probably again be a trendy choice to bust some brackets.