At this point in the college basketball season, clutch performers are made. No portion of the season is as vital as conference tournament time and a team will need its players to dig into the depths of their potential.
In the Missouri Valley Conference, two underclassmen battled against senior counterparts looking to make a last run at the conference tourney. Despite the lack of experience, both young, budding stars performed well and proved why the MVC is in good hands.
On Thursday, Evansville battled against Drake for the right to advance and play Wichita State. Drake’s senior guard Richard Carter had arguably his best game of the season as he posted 26 points on 11-18 shooting from the field and 3-4 on 3-pointers. He also dished seven assists and was the catalyst for the Bulldogs’ offense.
Unfortunately for Drake, the Evansville sophomore tandem of big man Egidijus Mockevicius and scoring-phenom D.J. Balentine had their best game as teammates this season. Balentine matched Carter point-for-point and won the scoring battle between the two guards as he scored a game-high 30 points. Mockevicius was even more important than first-team all-conference Balentine. The dominant big man scored 19 points on 5-6 shooting, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked eight shots as he almost achieved a triple-double in the 69-61 defeat of DU.
In Thursday’s second play-in game, Valley newcomers, Loyola (Chicago), took the court against the Bradley Braves. One of the league’s best on-ball defenders, senior Walt Lemon, had the daunting task of guarding the Valley’s freshman of the year, Milton Doyle. Lemon proved to be effective on both ends of the floor as he netted 24 points and held Doyle to 1-4 from beyond the arc.
But the sensational freshman would not be defeated. Although he was limited on the offensive end (19 points), he contributed on the defensive side with three blocks and tied a team-high four rebounds. After Lemon hit two free throws to put Bradley up a point, Doyle connected on a game-winning buzzer beater with a second left as the Ramblers won 74-72.
In March, the underclassmen aren’t the ones who are supposed to be playing the best. When they do, it’s a testament to the strength of the conference.