OVC rivals set to clash

Story by Blake Sandlin, Assistant Sports Editor

Murray State men’s basketball will look to avenge a 2017 loss to Belmont on Thursday, Jan. 18 when they make the snow-covered trek to Nashville, Tennessee, for a matchup against the OVC’s top team.

The Racers sit at 13-4 and 5-1 in the OVC, tied with Belmont and Austin Peay atop the conference standings. Over the Christmas break, they have made easy work of their conference opponents, losing just one game to Jacksonville State and winning five others by double-digits. They’re coming off a 71-45 win over Tennessee Tech on Saturday.

However, this road test against the conference’s perennial powerhouse will pose a formidable threat to the Racers. The Bruins were picked to finish first in the OVC this year, and they’ve backed it up. They’ve won several notable non-conference battles against Vanderbilt, Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee State, and have only suffered one conference loss against Jacksonville State.

THE MATCHUP

The Bruins are led by the duo of Amanze Egekeze and Dylan Windler, who average 17.6 and 16.5 PPG, respectively. Windler is nearly averaging a double-double with his team-high rebounding average of 9.2 RPG. Belmont’s offense has no shortage of prolific scorers, as three players are averaging double-figures in scoring.

Murray State Head Coach Matt McMahon said the tandem of Egekeze and Windler highlight an exceptional Belmont team.

“When you look at their team, they’re very talented; great quickness with their guards and great size up front with the versatility of Egekeze, who can step out and shoot it so well,” McMahon said. “Windler, who’s a 6’7 guard, is very skilled and playing at a high, high level this season. I think it’s a good defensive team as well, so we’ll have to execute at both ends.”

As is commonplace with most Rick Byrd-led Belmont teams, three-point shooting is a staple of their offense. The Bruins lead the OVC in three-pointers made this year, and it’s not even close. They’ve knocked down 214 triples this season and average 11.3 per game. The next closest? Southeast Missouri State’s  168.

Murray State would be wise to keep the Bruins off the charity stripe. Belmont is the league-leader in free throw percentage, averaging close to 76 percent from the line. Thursday’s game will feature the OVC’s leading passers, as Belmont ___ Austin Luke and Murray State freshman guard Ja Morant average 7.2 and 6.7 assists per game.

“I don’t think Luke gets enough credit until you see him up close,” McMahon said. “He’s got great size for the point guard position – tall, strong, physical, elite-level passer. You’ve got two of the leading assist guys in the country in this game.”

THE COUNTER-ATTACK

The Racers have no shortage of offensive juggernauts themselves. Senior guard Jonathan Stark is tied for 55th nationally in PPG, averaging 19.5. He’s scored over 20 points in seven-straight games and will need to replicate his recent play to propel his Racers to a win.

However, if he doesn’t, Murray State has a comprehensive supporting cast to pick up the slack. Four of the Racers’ starters average double-figure scoring, with senior forward Terrell Miller averaging 15, freshman guard Ja Morant pitching in 11.9 and junior guard Shaq Buchanan adding 10.8.

Don’t mistake this Racer team’s prowess on the offensive end as weakness on the defensive end. Murray State is ranked first in field goal percentage defense, limiting opponents to just over 40 percent shooting per game. Their second-ranked three-point field goal percentage defense should help remedy Belmont’s prolific three-point shooting.

HOW TO WATCH

If you’re like most reasonable people and don’t fancy making a two-hour commute to Nashville while risking your life on ice-plagued roads, ESPN has you covered. Fans can watch the game on ESPNU at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 18.