NASHVILLE — Nobody gift wraps a trip to the NCAA Tournament for you.
A scalding, early-game Eastern Kentucky shooting display built a 14-point lead in Saturday night's finals of the Ohio Valley Conference men's basketball tournament over favored Belmont.
The Bruins, however, had come all the way back to tie the game at 54 with only 5:56 left.
Playing in its hometown, Belmont had all the momentum and a loud crowd behind them. It also had history, as Coach Rick Byrd had never lost an NCAA Division I conference title game in six previous tries.
So if EKU was going to make its first NCAA tourney trip since 2007, the Colonels were going to have to step up under duress and take it.
Corey Walden and Glenn Cosey did just that.
With the score tied, Walden, the former Stetson Hatter guard, drove the ball toward the Belmont basket. "I knew I was covered, so I looked for a shooter," he said. "I saw (Cosey) open."
At the top of the key, Cosey, a product of gritty Flint, Mich., took the pass and rose up with a jump shot. "It was a big shot," Cosey said. "It felt good when it released. It felt good."
Cosey's cold-blooded trey stemmed the Belmont tide, launched an eight-point EKU run and was the pivotal play in what became a 79-73 Eastern Kentucky victory.
This morning in Richmond, there may be a run on dance shoes. Eastern Kentucky (24-9) is headed to the biggest dance of them all.
Behind 29 points from tourney MVP Walden, a 6-foot-2 junior from Daytona Beach, Fla., and 23 from Cosey, a 6-foot senior, the Colonels won their third OVC Tournament since 2005 and their second under coach Jeff Neubauer.
"Just watching our guys celebrate, this is really a special feeling," said Neubauer. "To me, that's what (coaching) is all about. I've been coaching these past few weeks for our seniors."
In a one-bid league like the OVC, everything rides on winning the conference tournament. Under Byrd, Belmont (24-9) did that five times in the Atlantic Sun Conference and last season in its first year in the OVC.
Yet it was EKU that started Saturday's contest as though it were right at home under title-game pressure.
Right out of the gate, Cosey hit a bomb from the left wing. Walden hit from the top of the key. Then it was Tarius Johnson from deep in the right corner, then again from the opposite corner. Next, Marcus Lewis drained a trey from the right corner, too. After Cosey finally missed from the top of the key, he came back to splash a trey from the left wing, then another from the left corner.
With 8:07 left in the first half, Eastern Kentucky had started the game 7-for-8 from three-point range and led 28-14.
"We definitely got off to a big start," Walden said. "Our main focus was to go out and get the lead and we did that. We got a pretty good lead. But we knew they would make a run."
As befits a team that beat North Carolina in Chapel Hill this season, Belmont made several runs. Each time, Neubauer's resourceful Colonels found answers.
In doing so, the EKU team was following the example of its coach.
When the former John Beilein assistant came to EKU after Travis Ford left for Massachusetts following the 2005 season, Neubauer's philosophy was reliant on 1-3-1 zones defensively and a lot of Beilein-type structure on offense.
The team he is taking to the 2014 NCAA Tournament is built around a scrambling defense and a guard-oriented offense in which players like Cosey and Walden have the freedom to create.
There is a special place in coaching heaven for those willing to change to fit their personnel.
"We did change," Neubauer said. "I give a lot of credit to our assistant coaches. Our assistants allowed us to change because they are such good man-to-man coaches."
In seven trips to the NCAA Tournament, Eastern Kentucky has never won a game.
Can the 2014 Colonels break through?
"Oh, man, I hope so," junior forward Eric Stutz said. "Man, I hope so."
Said Walden: "We're going to do everything in our power to change that."
Off what we saw on an electric Saturday night in Music City, if an NCAA upset comes down to toughness and the ability to make plays under pressure, Cosey, Walden and EKU just might have one in them.
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.