In the first two meetings, Tennessee State only received half of the backcourt treatment from Belmont.
Kerron Johnson got into foul trouble. Ian Clark bailed him out and ran the point in a Bruins' victory. The next time, Clark endured an 0-for from 3-point range. Johnson attacked the paint and helped the Bruins hang around in a loss.
On Friday, the dynamic senior duo pieced together two halves as a tandem. Clark and Johnson combined for 49 points and neutralized the efforts of TSU’s star trio in a thrilling 82-73 win in the semifinals of the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament at Municipal Auditorium.
Clark scored 26 points and made six 3-pointers – all in the second half. Johnson added 23 points, seven assists and three steals.
“You just can’t let them get going,” TSU coach Travis Williams said. “Ian Clark got going. He was able to get some good looks in transition. He was able to step up make shots. Kerron Johnson got going and was able to break us down.”
The Bruins (25-6), the No. 1 seed, advanced to face No. 2 seed and defending tournament champion Murray State in Saturday's final (6 p.m., ESPN2).
For TSU, Kellen Thornton scored 22 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, Patrick Miller added 17 points and 12 assists and Robert Covington chipped in 16 points and five blocks. Still the fourth-seeded Tigers couldn’t overcome 21 turnovers and Clark and Johnson.
Clark, at one point the nation’s best 3-point shooter, had shot just 21.2 percent (7-of-33) in his last five games. The OVC’s co-player of the year misfired on both attempts in the first half and took a seat on the bench with his second foul with 5:18 before halftime.
TSU (18-14) took advantage and built a nine-point lead midway through the first half. From there Johnson slowly chipped away by driving to the basket. He scored nine points in the last 8:16 of the half and attempted six free throws, forcing the Tigers into early foul trouble. He also helped force 13 first-half turnovers by TSU.
Even though Belmont missed 11 straight shots at one point and were 0-for-10 from 3-point range, Johnson’s play lifted the Bruins to a 32-29 halftime lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
“Kerron kept us in it offensively in the first half,” Byrd said. “He is such a competitive guy and I’ve never had a player that draws as many fouls as Kerron Johnson does. When we weren’t doing much of anything, he was getting them to foul him and go to the line and getting us some points.”
Johnson made 11 of 16 free throws and scored 15 points in the second half, which was when Clark kicked it into another gear and scored 20 points.
His six 3-pointers came in his first seven attempts. He drilled treys in transition, coming off screens and with a hand in his face. He shook his head in confidence after his fifth gave Belmont its largest lead, 63-52. Then he calmly sunk his final one from the left wing with 7:24 left after TSU had pulled to within four.
“He has shot it great about 90 percent of the year but he has been in a mini-slump that I’m going to declare has officially ended,” Byrd said.
“It was being confident,” said Clark, who was 0-for-7 from the 3-point arc in his last game against TSU. “My coaches and teammates still believed in me. I knew I had to keep my head up and make sure that I go out there and try to make every shot. Tonight, I went with the mindset of just leaving it all out on the floor.”
Covington did his best to answer, making three of his four 3-pointers in the second half. Thornton was even more impressive, accounting for 12 of his team’s 14 points during a late stretch. His turnaround jumpers, drives to the rim and a pair of 3-pointers buoyed the Tigers.
“If Kellen Thornton is a second-team All-OVC player, then we just ought to take the first team to the NBA and win games because he is darn good,” Byrd said.
But Thornton missed a transition layup with less than a minute left that would have cut the lead to three.
Johnson didn’t let the Tigers get any closer. After making a free throw, he intercepted a pass by Miller and raced the other end for a layup off the glass and a 76-68 lead with 37.5 seconds left.
It was the perfect way to complement his better backcourt half.
“We’ve been much better offensively than I thought we could be without an inside presence,” Byrd said. “I wouldn’t have thought we could be this good. But obviously the year Ian has had shooting it and when Kerron plays like he has the last few days we’re as good as we have been.”