NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Corey Walden celebrated by draping a net around his neck and hanging a piece of string over each ear. Senior guard Glenn Cosey had a quick quip for Jeff Neubauer as the Eastern Kentucky coach walked in to talk with reporters.
"Welcome to the winner's circle, coach," Cosey said.
Well, Neubauer has been here before, and now he has Eastern Kentucky back here again.
Walden scored 22 of his career-high 29 points in the second half to help Eastern Kentucky upset top-seeded Belmont 79-73 Saturday night for the Ohio Valley Conference tournament championship and an NCAA tournament berth.
The Colonels (24-9) won their seventh straight game — and third in as many nights — in clinching their first OVC tournament title since 2007 and their eighth trip to the NCAAs overall. Neubauer was in his second season with that 2007 team and appreciates this visit even more with six seniors.
"There are 12 teams in the OVC that work for this opportunity," Neubauer said. "To be the one team to go to the NCAA tournament to end up on top at the end, it's an amazing feeling, especially when you've spent so much time with these young men."
Cosey added 23 points for Eastern Kentucky. Tarius Johnson had 15 before fouling out.
Belmont (24-9) failed to add its second consecutive tournament title to its regular-season championship and will miss the NCAA tournament for just the third time in the past nine years and first since 2010. Coach Rick Byrd said that stinks, though he knows it's a great feeling for the Colonels.
"When you get a taste of it and been fortunate to get as many trips as we've had, there's nothing like it," Byrd said. "J.J. (Mann) and Blake (Jenkins) would've had the most incredible record of all time to win all regular-season titles and all-tournament championships in a career, and seven out of eight's not bad."
Mann, the OVC player of the year, led Belmont with 18 points. Evan Bradds and Drew Windler each added 14, and Reece Chamberlain had 11.
Eastern Kentucky never trailed, and Belmont tied it up only twice with the last time at 54. The Colonels scored the next eight points and finished the game hitting 9 of 10 at the free throw line in the final 1:16.
Belmont had cruised through a season in which it won at North Carolina in November and went 14-2 in league play. The Bruins came into the final having won seven straight and 12 of their last 13.
But Eastern Kentucky jumped on the Bruins from the start in the Colonels' third game in as many nights, scoring 17 of the first 19 points. The Colonels hit six of seven shots with five beyond the arc, and Marcus Lewis became the fourth different player to knock down a 3 to put Eastern Kentucky up 17-2 with 14:08 left.
"That's the start we needed so Belmont was trying to chase us," Neubauer said.
They wound up hitting 11 of 22 3-pointers and shot 51.1 percent overall while holding Belmont to 46 percent.
"It just comes down to toughness," Walden said. "We knew we would have to play one more game. We didn't let it affect us. We just wanted to come out and play hard basketball."
Belmont didn't score until Craig Bradshaw threw down a dunk with 16:20 to go, and Mann didn't score until a 3-pointer with 12:59 remaining. Eastern Kentucky led 36-28 at halftime.
Walden scored the first 10 points of the second half as the Bruins worked to make a game of it. Belmont reeled off seven straight points keyed by a pair of steals by Mann, finishing off the second with a layup to pull the Bruins within 41-35.
They finally tied it up at 52 with a 7-1 spurt capped by two free throws by Chamberlain. Eric Stutz hit two free throws for Eastern Kentucky, and Bradds tied it for the last time at 54 with a layup for the Bruins.
"We knew they would make a run," Walden said. "We just had to control their run."
Then Cosey put Eastern Kentucky ahead to stay with a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 5:28 to go. Johnson added two free throws, then Walden knocked down a 3 for a 62-54 lead with 4:28 left. When Mann hit a 3 to pull Belmont within 63-59, Cosey hit another 3 with 1:35 to go, padding the Colonels' lead.