The EKU women’s basketball team made a Cinderella run in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament. The team almost lost their chance to travel to Nashville for the OVC Tournament. Up until the last week of the season, the bottom seeds for the tournament were still up for grabs, and the Colonels won their last game of the regular season to clinch the seventh seed in the OVC.
The Colonels played in-state rival and second-seeded Morehead State. Expected to finish eleventh in the conference, the favored Eagles shocked the OVC and finished the regular season 21-9, with a 11-5 conference record.
In the tournament, though, Morehead State was without their best player— first team All-OVC player Brianna McQueen—due to an ACL tear in the middle of February.
The Colonels started the first quarter firing on all cylinders, outscoring Morehead 26-15 and playing one of their best first quarters of the season.
The second quarter was no different, as EKU played lock-down defense the entire quarter, ending up with eight steals at the end of the half. It was one of EKU’s best played halves of the season, as they took a 40-29 lead into halftime.
“You’ve got to get stops, but you have to believe and trust in each other,” Coach Chrissy Roberts said of the team’s effort.
The fourth quarter seemed to be all but over until the final three minutes, as Morehead stormed back from a double-digit deficit to cut the lead within five points. But EKU’s hustle was far too much to overcome in the fourth, as the Colonels escaped with a 73-67 win.
Senior Jalen O’Bannon lead the way for the Colonels with a double-double, putting up 24 points and 10 rebounds.
Coming off the bench, junior Madison Wood stepped up for the Colonels. The 6’3” forward from Kirkwood Community College put up eight points, seven rebounds and five blocks in her best game of the season.
“Morehead is a fun team to play,” Wood said. “The first time we played them it wasn’t pretty, and we really wanted to come back from that.”
EKU Women’s Basketball was back in action for the second time in the last three days as they played third-seeded Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in the semi-finals of the OVC tournament.
After coming off the Morehead victory, the Colonels were in for another battle—with a chance to play in the OVC championship on the line.
Defense was the story of the first half, as EKU continued their lock-down D, forcing 11 turnovers and making six blocks to hold SIUE to just 21 points on six of 27 shooting.
To go along with her three blocks in the first half, O’Bannon lead the team with eight points on 50 percent shooting.
As strong as the defense was in the first half, the offense excelled in the second half. Typically a shooting threat, Alexus Cooper struggled, making just 7 points on 2 of 8 shooting, leaving Shavontae Naylor to carry the load in the second half. Naylor made 14 points on 7 of 9 shooting in one of her better shooting halves of the season.
Perhaps the biggest play of the game came from the hands of Mariah Massengill, while EKU was up by just one point. Massengill drove the lane and hit a floater with just nine seconds left to put the Colonels up by three.
“I prayed that one in,” Massengill said. “It was big time, and we needed it. Nothing I can say except I shot it up there, closed my eyes and hoped it went in.”
That shot proved to be the difference as EKU closed out a hard fought win with a score of 61-58.
EKU met first-seeded Belmont in the OVC title game. Belmont defeated the Colonels last season in the title game and came into this tournament with a 26-5 record and two regular season wins over the Colonels.
“We owe them one,” Massengill said.
The Colonels started out strong against Belmont, trading baskets and showing the Nashville crowd that they would not go down without a fight.
Naylor and O’cannon made 19 of EKU’s 28 first-half points, keeping the Colonels alive and looking like solid contenders to pull off one of the greatest tournament runs in OVC history.
Unfortunately, the Cinderella magic ran out for the Colonels as Belmont outscored EKU 56-36 in the second half. EKU could not stand against Vanderbilt transfer Kylee Smith, who put up 30 points, 21 of which came in the second half.
“We faced a great Belmont team today, and they’re going to represent their team very well in the NCAA tournament,” Roberts said. “You know, I hate to lose, and I’m a sore loser.”
The Colonels were the first seventh seed to ever make it to the OVC Women’s Championship, shocking casual fans who may have only looked at the team’s regular season record. Full of injuries and streaky playing, EKU fell below their goals in the regular season after a good showing the previous year. But with talent, maturity and enough preparation, the Colonels were able proved that they can be a serious contender.
“I don’t think anybody expected us to be here and I felt we exceeded a lot of people’s expectations,” Roberts stated.
The championship loss stings for the mostly-upperclassmen team and the university, but a bright spot in the defeat was senior O’Bannon closing out her historic collegiate career with All-OVC Tournament honors.
Next semester EKU will lose eight seniors. It is unknown if guard Michaela Hunter will rejoin the team as she gains an extra year of eligibility due to an injury.
The Colonels’ top four scorers will graduate, returning only seven players next season, just one of whom was a starter in the championship game.