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Evansville Courier & Press (Indiana)
EVANSVILLE — Before Saturday, the last time there was Division I men's basketball on a Saturday night at Ford Center was December 2014.
Murray State and Belmont ended that drought with an exciting, back-and-forth game in the Ohio Valley Conference championship. MSU fans traveled well, comprising roughly 75 percent of the announced 4,820 in attendance, and fueled their team down the stretch to a 68-51 victory.
It seemingly put an exclamation point on the OVC's trial run of hosting its tournament someplace other than Nashville, where it had been in 23 of the past 24 seasons. Recency bias aside from the fact his team earned an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament, consider Racers' head coach Matt McMahon among those in favor of the event returning to Evansville.
"This is what a first-class conference tournament looks like," he said. "The arena, the facilities, the locker rooms, the video boards, stat boards - the overall experience for the student-athletes and the fans. ... They showed up in large numbers and I really thought our guys fed off the energy and enthusiasm that was in the arena. It was electric in there. To me, that's what a conference tournament should be."
Nashville Municipal Auditorium is undergoing renovations, but losing the tournament cost its city between $1-2 million.
Evansville pulled out all the stops to make visiting fans feel welcome. There was music blasting outside the arena with nearby food trucks and a beverage tent. There were ticket promotions for five of the eight sessions, and otherwise, the games weren't overpriced. An anticipated MSU-Belmont game could be attended for $30, a bargain compared to many tournament games.
Everything about it being in Evansville was cheaper, and money tends to drive business decisions. Combine that with playing in a sparkling venue like Ford Center, there would be some opposition if the OVC prefers to move the tournament back to its headquarters in Music City.
"From a facility standpoint, I would argue that this is better than Bridgestone (Arena)," said Tennessee-Martin women's coach Kevin McMillan, referring to where the NHL's Nashville Predators play and where the Southeastern Conference men's basketball tournament has been held since 2001.
"It's great for our pocketbook. It's great for our kids. I'm saving our athletic director money and our kids are happy."
The Evansville Sports Corp. already submitted a letter of intent to continue hosting and will next finalize its bid proposal for 2019.
It shone a positive light on the city. The men's semifinal games were televised on ESPNU and the championship on ESPN2. Fans tuning had no problem figuring out where the game was taking place with Evansville displayed on both baselines.
The atmosphere for the men's championship, as McMahon stated, was impressive.
Fans of both teams cheered loudly after anything and everything that went their way. Both teams made exciting runs. Murray jumped out to a 14-2 lead and then Belmont ended the first half with a 15-2 spurt to take a slim lead into the break. It was a four-point game with six minutes to go, when the Racers outscored the Bruins 16-3 down the stretch.
There was star power with MSU's Jonathan Stark, the OVC Player of the Year who poured in a game-high 24 points to earn MVP honors. While it is not as highly regarded as the league Evansville plays in, both teams on display Saturday night could compete. Both will be candidates again if the Missouri Valley Conference decides to expand.
The OVC had competition among local sports fans with high school basketball sectional titles on the line. Those at Ford Center did not leave disappointed.
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