Introducing Cinderella: Murray State and Ja Morant earn the first autobid

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The first autobid of the 2019 NCAA tournament has been earned as Murray State knocked off Belmont for a 77-65 win.

Receiving national attention all season thanks to sophomore point guard Ja Morant, the Racers don’t have to sweat on Selection Sunday thanks to another stellar performance from their superstar. Considered by some to be the best NBA Draft prospect in the country behind Duke’s Zion Williamson, Morant made the game-winning three-point play in the OVC semifinals on Friday before a 36-point performance against Belmont on Saturday. Morant’s heroics in Nashville during the week helped lift Murray State back into the Field of 68.

But Murray State is more than just Morant. The Racers were good enough to force their way into the bubble conversation before earning the autobid as they’ll be a very dangerous team in a few weeks.

CONFERENCE: Ohio Valley Conference

COACH: Matt McMahon

RECORD: 27-4, 16-2 in the Ohio Valley Conference

RATINGS:

  • KENPOM: 55
  • NET: 52

PROJECTED SEED: Murray State was strong enough to earn at-large consideration before earning the autobid as they’ll likely slot at a No. 12 or No. 13 seed in the NCAA tournament.

NAMES YOU NEED TO KNOW: Besides for Morant (24.2 ppg, 10.3 apg, 5.5 rpg) and his electrifying athleticism and above-the-rim play, Murray State has three other double-figure scorers to contend with. It’s part of the reason Morant accumulated so many assists despite being a gigantic target all season. Senior guard Shaq Buchanan (13.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg) is the team’s second-leading scorer while freshman guard Tevin Brown (11.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg) has emerged as the team’s third playmaker on the perimeter. And junior big man Darnell Cowart (10.3 ppg and 6.7 rpg) is a wide-bodied big man who is a load to handle at 295 pounds.

BIG WINS, BAD LOSSES: The Racers actually just earned their best win of the season by beating Belmont in the OVC title game as it gave them their first Q1 victory. Murray State also lost to Alabama and Auburn by single digits earlier this season. The only loss Murray State suffered that wasn’t a top-60 team in NET was a respectable Q2 loss to 20-win Jacksonville State. Even though Murray State didn’t play a lot of marquee competition, they didn’t really lose to anybody bad.

STATS YOU NEED TO KNOW: Morant led the country in assists per game by nearly 2.5 per contest over his leading competitor. But the key for Murray State making a run could be its stellar three-point defense. Allowing opponents to shoot only 28.7 percent from three-point range on the season, good for fourth in the nation, the Racers do an excellent job of playing opponents off the line and making them settle for twos.

HOW DO I KNOW YOU?: Murray State has consistently been one of the nation’s great mid-major programs. Making the NCAA tournament last season, the Racers have made 17 total NCAA tournament appearances. And besides for Morant, the program has a tremendous history of producing NBA guards — particularly for a mid-major program. Isaiah Canaan and Cameron Payne are both recent Murray State products who went on to play in the League.

FINAL THOUGHT: America needed this. During a season in which the bubble has been incredibly mediocre and filled with near-.500 teams from power conferences, getting an exciting player like Morant into the field is a breath of fresh air for college basketball diehards. Hopefully, the committee also takes a serious look at Belmont’s at-large profile as well. Because the Bruins have a star of their own in Dylan Windler and they’re a great team in their own right. It would be a lot of fun to see two OVC teams make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1987.

No. 1 South Carolina wins 28th straight 87-69 over ‘Cats

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COLUMBIA, S.C. — Dawn Staley’s pleased South Carolina had made its once-lopsided series with UConn more competitive the past few years.

She hopes her top-ranked team can accomplish another milestone when the teams meet for a top-five showdown on Sunday.

“It still stands true that we haven’t won up there,” Staley said.

Aliyah Boston had 14 points and 14 rebounds as South Carolina prepared for the top-five showdown with an 87-69 victory over Kentucky on Thursday night.

The Gamecocks (10-0 Southeastern Conference) improved to 22-0 and won their 28th straight, a run that included a 64-49 victory over the Huskies in Minneapolis last April to win the national championship.

Staley had lost her first seven games as South Carolina coach against UConn. The Gamecocks have won three of the past four matchups since.

“This particular class committed to each other,” Staley said. “When you have that type of commitment and you just want to win, you find yourself winning some games that you haven’t won before.”

Against Kentucky, reigning AP player of the year Boston extended her school mark with her 75th career double-double and moved within 11 of the SEC record of 86 games with a double-double held by LSU great Sylvia Fowles.

Things weren’t perfect for South Carolina, which fell behind early, then had its 15-point halftime lead cut to 54-48 midway through the third quarter.

Still, its dominant inside game – South Carolina outscored the Wildcats 62-14 in the paint – was more than enough to shut down Kentucky (10-12, 2-8), the last team to defeat the defending national champions at the SEC Tournament last March.

The Wildcats went on top 16-15 after a pair of baskets by Adebola Adeyeye.

That’s when South Carolina, fueled by its bench, took control with a 17-2 run. Ashlyn Watkins had three inside shots and Kamilla Cardoso scored four points during the surge.

The Wildcats used a 13-4 burst to start the third quarter to give South Carolina a few uncomfortable moments. But the Gamecocks got going once more with an 11-0 run to extend their margin.

Cardoso, the 6-foot-7 reserve, had 14 points and five of South Carolina’s 14 blocks. Defensive ace Brea Beal had 10 including both of the Gamecocks’ 3-pointers.

Beal thought the team held together well to blunt Kentucky’s runs and regain control. “I think it’s our mental aspect of the game and us believing in each other,” she said.

Robyn Benton had 24 points to lead Kentucky, which has lost three of its past four games.

Wildcats coach Kyra Elzy said South Carolina is difficult to match up with because of its deep bench. “They have depth after depth after depth,” she said. “They keep coming.”

BIG PICTURE

Kentucky: The Wildcats are the not the same team that featured two-time SEC player of the year Rhyne Howard the past few seasons. They have 10 newcomers – and six freshmen – who are still learning how to play against the SEC’s top teams like South Carolina.

South Carolina: Forgive the Gamecocks if their focus wasn’t fully on this one at first with a big week ahead. In an eight-game span, South Carolina will face No. 5 UConn and No. 3 LSU, a pair of high-profile games could expose any flaw – or show how powerful the Gamecocks are in chasing a second straight NCAA crown.

UCONN KARMA

South Carolina has opened 22-0 twice under coach Dawn Staley, in 2014-15 and the following year. Both runs ended against UConn. Next up for Gamecocks are the Huskies, although South Carolina has won three of the past four games over UConn including last April’s 64-49 victory to win the NCAA Tournament title.

UP NEXT

Kentucky returns home to face Alabama on Feb. 9.

South Carolina heads to No. 5 UConn on Sunday.

Miles, Citron lead No. 9 Irish past Boston College 72-59

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BOSTON — Olivia Miles and Sonia Citron had already scored 10 straight points to put away Boston College when they turned their attention to other things.

“I told Sonia I needed two more assists for the double-double. And she was like, `All right, I’ve got you,”‘ Miles said after helping No. 9 Notre Dame beat BC 72-59 on Thursday night.

“That’s just kind of our communication on the court,” said Miles, who found Citron for baskets on the next two Irish possessions to complete a 14-0 run – with all 14 points from Miles and Citron. “We just really play off each other really well.

Miles scored 22 points with 10 assists and eight rebounds, and Citron scored 23 for the Irish (18-2, 9-1 Atlantic Coast Conference).

Maria Gakdeng scored 16 points, T’Yana Todd had 13 and Andrea Daly scored 10 with eight rebounds for BC (14-11, 4-8). The Irish beat BC at home 85-48 on New Year’s Day but hadn’t won in Chestnut Hill since 2019.

“This is such a tough place to play,” said Notre Dame coach Niele Ivey, whose team faces No. 16 Duke next. “We’ll celebrate it until about 12:30, and then we’ve got film. Tomorrow we start focusing on Duke.”

BC came within five points, 55-50, before the Irish ran off 14 points in a row – nine by Citron, and five by Miles. That put an end to what had been a back-and-forth game in which the Irish opened big leads and then frittered them away.

“I always feel like we’re close,” BC coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee said. “They’re young; I think consistency comes with experience.

“I think it’s a big improvement from the first time we played Notre Dame,” she said. “I still want to see more, and I want to see us grow up as fast as humanly possible because I think we do have a dangerous team when we going well.”

Notre Dame led by 11 in the first quarter and held a 38-30 lead with two minutes gone in the third. BC scored 13 of the next 18 points, capitalizing on back-to-back Irish turnovers to tie it 43-all with three minutes left in the quarter.

But Natalija Marshall put back the rebound of her own miss, Miles drove to the basket, Maddy Westbeld added a pair of baskets and then Miles stole the ball and found Citron on the fast break to make it 53-43.

BIG PICTURE

Notre Dame bounced back from their first league loss of the season, a 69-65 defeat at North Carolina State on Sunday. Now they face No. 16 Duke.

The Eagles, who beat Pittsburgh on Sunday to snap a five-game losing streak, were looking for their second victory over a Top 25 team this season, having also beaten then-No. 10 N.C. State on Jan. 5.

UP NEXT

Notre Dame: Hosts No. 16 Duke on Sunday.

Boston College: Visits Syracuse on Sunday.

No. 16 Xavier beats No. 17 Providence 85-83 in OT thriller

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CINCINNATI — Jack Nunge had 23 points and 14 rebounds as No. 16 Xavier held off No. 17 Providence 85-83 in an overtime thriller Wednesday night.

Colby Jones and Souley Boum each scored 20 for the Musketeers, who won a first-place showdown in the Big East without injured forward Zach Freemantle.

Noah Locke had 22 points and Ed Croswell added 21 for Providence (17-6, 9-3), which had beaten Xavier three straight times.

A layup by Boum put the Musketeers (18-5, 10-2) ahead 82-79 with 51 seconds remaining in overtime. A turnover by the Musketeers led to a layup by Devin Carter that cut Xavier’s lead to one with 24 seconds left.

Boum hit one of two free throws, and Jared Bynum’s 3-point attempt from the left corner rimmed out at the buzzer as the Musketeers held on.

Xavier played its first game without Freemantle, the team’s leading rebounder and second-leading scorer. He is expected to miss four weeks with a left foot injury, the same foot that required surgery in 2021.

Jerome Hunter, who has excelled off the bench for the Musketeers, made his first start of the season and scored nine points with eight rebounds. Xavier had used the same starting lineup in each of its previous 11 Big East games.

Things started well for the Musketeers. who went on a 12-1 run to build a 25-11 lead.

With Boum on the bench with two fouls, the Musketeers didn’t have a field goal in the final 4:18 of the first half and the Friars pulled to 39-35 at halftime.

Providence outscored Xavier 8-2 to start the second half and took its first lead, 43-41, with 17:41 left.

There was a frantic finish to the second half, with Adam Kunkel’s 3-pointer putting Xavier ahead 76-73 with 55 seconds left. But then Bynum banked in a tying 3 and Boum missed two long shots to send the game to overtime.

BIG PICTURE

Providence: The Friars, who won their first Big East regular-season title last year, entered the night tied atop the conference standings with Xavier and No. 14 Marquette, which hosted Villanova later. Providence was picked fifth in the preseason.

Xavier: Hunter, who averages 14 minutes, left with three minutes remaining in OT with an apparent cramp in his right leg. With Freemantle out, Hunter played 36 minutes.

UP NEXT

Providence: Hosts last-place Georgetown on Wednesday.

Xavier: Will host St. John’s on Saturday.

Florida upends No. 2 Tennessee 67-54 behind Colin Castleton

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Colin Castleton had 20 points and nine rebounds, Kyle Lofton added 14 points and Florida used a 13-0 run late in the second half to upend No. 2 Tennessee 67-54 on Wednesday night.

The Volunteers, playing with their highest ranking in four years, lost for the first time in five games. They had won nine of 10.

Tennessee (18-4, 7-2 Southeastern Conference) looked like it had taken control midway through the second half. They outscored Florida by 10 points in the early going to take a six-point lead.

But the Gators (13-9, 6-3) stormed back behind Castleton, who scored 11 of 14 points as Florida rallied. The senior had a dunk, two free throws, a three-point play, a layup and a short jumper – essentially putting the team on his back down the stretch.

Myreon Jones and Will Richard chipped in nine points apiece for the Gators.

Zakai Ziegler led the Vols with 15 points on 6-of-19 shooting. Olivier Nkamhoua added 11 points and nine rebounds for the vistors, who also got 11 points and eight boards from Vescovi Santiago.

Florida led 27-21 at halftime, just the fifth time the Volunteers has trailed at the break this season. Tennessee rallied to win three of the previous four.

The Gators were red hot to start, making six of their first eight shots – including all three from 3-point range – while building a 17-4 advantage. But they quickly cooled against the nation’s best defense, missing nine of their next 11 as Tennessee made cut it to 22-21.

The Vols had it going coming out of the locker room, with Ziegler getting into the paint and making things happen. But it was short-lived – thanks mostly to Castleton.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Tennessee surely will drop a few spots in next week’s AP Top 25 college basketball poll.

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee: The Volunteers gave up 10 points in the opening four minutes of the games, a rare sluggish start for the nation’s best defense. Tennessee had held four of its first eight SEC opponents scoreless at the first media timeout, roughly the first four minutes of games. It was a sign of things to come.

Florida: The Gators have been resilient much of the season, and this was arguably the most impressive comeback of the season for coach Todd Golden’s team. The Gators squandered a 13-point lead early and a six-point advantage in the second half. But they rallied when it mattered.

IN THE HOUSE

Football coach Billy Napier watched the game from a few rows behind Florida’s bench alongside his two sons and receiver Ricky Pearsall. Former Florida tennis star Ben Shelton, the NCAA singles champion in 2022, also was in attendance. So was former Gators and NFL quarterback Doug Johnson.

UP NEXT

Tennessee hosts No. 25 Auburn and former coach Bruce Pearl on Saturday.

Florida plays at Kentucky on Saturday. The Gators have lost seven of eight in the series.

No. 8 Kansas avenges earlier loss to No. 7 Kansas State, 90-78

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LAWRENCE, Kan. — Jalen Wilson had 20 points, Kevin McCullar Jr. added 16 points and 13 rebounds, and No. 8 Kansas avenged a loss to Kansas State just a couple of weeks ago with a 90-78 victory over the seventh-ranked Wildcats.

Dajuan Harris Jr. scored 18 for the Jayhawks (18-4, 6-3 Big 12), who built a 12-point halftime lead before coasting to their 17th straight home win over the Wildcats in the 10th matchup of top-10 teams in series history.

Kansas has rebounded nicely from a rare three-game skid that included the overtime loss to Kansas State, and made sure to avoid taking back-to-back losses in its storied home for the first time since the 1988-89 season.

Markquis Nowell scored 23 points and Keyontae Johnson had 22 to lead the Wildcats (18-4, 6-3), who were trying for their first regular-season sweep of their biggest rival in four decades. Nae’Qwan Tomlin added 11 points and David N’Guessan had 10.

In their first meeting on Jan. 17, the Wildcats raced to a big early lead and controlled the game until late in the second half, when the Jayhawks forced overtime — only for Kansas State to win on Johnson’s alley-oop dunk.

It was the Jayhawks who controlled the rematch.

They used a 16-7 run in the first half that included a technical foul on Kansas State coach Jerome Tang to build a 32-19 lead. And when Johnson answered with eight straight points for the Wildcats, and the lead was eventually trimmed to four, the reigning national champs pulled away again down the stretch.

It was 37-32 when Wilson hit back-to-back 3-pointers and Zach Clemence added one of his own. And by the time Wilson made two foul shots with about 10 seconds left, Kansas had built a 49-37 lead that it took to the break.

The Wildcats briefly got within six in the second half before the Jayhawks stretched their lead to as many as 16.

OFFICIATING OOPS

Johnson had to sit with two fouls just 2 1/2 minutes into the game. Only problem? The crew of John Higgins, Kip Kissinger and Marques Pettigrew gave one to the wrong player. By the time they corrected their mistake, the Wildcats’ leading scorer had unnecessarily ridden the bench for several minutes.

SELLOUT … AND THEN SOME

For the first time in more than 15 years, more Kansas students redeemed tickets than there was space available inside Allen Fieldhouse. The overflow had to watch the game on screens in the adjacent Horejsi Family Athletics Center, where the Jayhawks play volleyball games. Those students also got refunds and concessions vouchers.

BIG PICTURE

Kansas State’s three losses in league play have been to ranked teams on the road: TCU, Iowa State and Kansas. And with a more forgiving second half to the Big 12 schedule, the Wildcats remain firmly in the conference title hunt.

Kansas got its mojo back with its win over Kentucky last weekend. This victory over another bunch of Wildcats was crucial because the road doesn’t get any easier for the Jayhawks, who are in the midst of three straight games against teams ranked 13th or better.

UP NEXT

Kansas State returns home for another top-10 showdown Saturday against No. 10 Texas.

Kansas hits the road for the third time in four games against No. 13 Iowa State on Saturday.