The only team to beat Tennessee State twice this season, Morehead State figured to be the toughest out for the Tigers.
TSU gladly accepted the challenge.
Aggressive from the start, the Tigers overwhelmed the Eagles in an 88-75 victory on Thursday night in the quarterfinals of the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament at Municipal Auditorium.
Having lost 101-100 to Morehead in regulation exactly a week ago, No. 4 seed TSU teamed up and bounced the fifth-seeded Eagles from the tournament for the second straight year. Jordan Cyphers tied a career-high with 23 points to lead four TSU players in double figures.
“This is the game we wanted,” point guard Patrick Miller said. “We wanted to show we could compete with them after they stole two games from us. We came out with that much energy because we felt like it is going to be tough to beat us a third time.”
The win sets up an all-Nashville semifinal against No. 1 seed Belmont at 6 p.m. Friday (ESPNU). The teams split the regular-season series. Each won at home.
A slow start cost the Tigers in their previous meeting with Morehead (15-18). This time TSU jumped in front less than three minutes after the tip and stayed ahead the rest of the way. Showcasing their athleticism, the Tigers (18-13) crashed the boards, drove the lane and passionately chased down loose balls, slamming into the press row tables multiple times.
“When I played college ball, I wanted that physical contact,” TSU coach Travis Williams said. “I liked the rough play. It shows a sign of our maturity. You’re going to have to play physical basketball. You’re going to have to play tough basketball.”
Cyphers' first of three 3-pointers gave TSU its largest lead, 39-24, with 2:05 left in the first half. Ahead by 12 at halftime, Robert Covington followed up an alley-oop dunk with a contested 3-pointer for an early 14-point lead in the second half. But the Eagles showed resiliency and rattled off 10 points. Bakari Turner’s 3-pointer closed the deficit to three, 59-56, with 10:50 left.
Then backup guard Jay Harris single-handedly thwarted the rally. He answered with a 3-pointer and then plucked a steal and finished on the other end for an eight-point cushion. The Tigers forced 17 turnovers and had 10 steals. Covington, in addition to 21 points, tied a career-high with four blocks.
“It is hard to beat a team three times as you can see,” Morehead State coach Sean Woods said. “I thought they were prepared for everything we threw at them. Tip my hat off to Tennessee State, they finally got it right on the third time against us. They deserved to win.”
Franklin native Drew Kelly led Morehead with 16 points and Angelo Warner added 15.
Kellen Thornton and Miller each scored 15 points. Miller also added 10 assists for his fifth double-double of the season. Harris came off the bench to score nine points in just 15 minutes.
“They’re a nightmare to match up with defensively,” Kelly said.
Now, the Tigers get the dream local matchup with the Bruins in pursuit of their second straight trip to the OVC championship game.
“I feel pretty confident,” Cyphers said. “We can play with Belmont, even though they are a very good team. We are a streaky team. We’re able to win three in a row [to win the championship].”