EVANSVILLE, Ind. -- It was a bittersweet moment after the Colonels were knocked out of the OVC Tournament by No. 1 seed Belmont University on Friday in the semifinals at the Ford Center in a 60-50 loss.
Bitter because the young, gritty team was determined to fight its way through to earn the program's first OVC championship game in six years.
Sweet because no one even thought they would even get as far as they did.
EKU coach A.W. Hamilton acknowledged that fact almost immediately in his post-game comments on Friday after the loss.
"I'd like to start off and say how proud I am of this team -- what we've done this year and how far we've come. For us to win 12 games in this league is amazing. It's just the fourth time in history of our school we've been able to do that and it's the second-most wins in league play. In December, there were so many people that counted these guys out," Hamilton said of the Colonels impressive turnaround for non-conference to OVC play.
It was also what helped Hamilton earn the OVC Coach of the Year award last week and sophomores Jomaru Brown (first-team) and Tre King (second team) all-conference honors.
However, Hamilton gave credit to his team and noted that the Colonels held their head high, even in the bleakest of times.
"It shows the character and toughness that these guys have. They came together and had a magical run in OVC play. They really did," the coach said.
While EKU might've ended its run to the championship on Friday, the Colonels still had something to tip their hat on.
EKU held the Bruins (25-7, 15-3 OVC) to 34 percent shooting from the field for the game, including just 7-of-30 (23 percent) from behind the arc.
"That's the lowest field goal percentage that somebody has held Belmont to. We guarded them extremely well," Hamilton noted.
However, the Colonels managed to hit on just 30 percent from the field and went 5-for-12 at the free throw line.
"We competed like crazy, just one of those nights we couldn't get the ball to go in. I never dreamed in a million years that Michael (Moreno) would go 0-for-4, and as a team, we would go 5-of-12. So, it's just one of those games. I hate it. I really do," the coach said.
The Colonels did not go down without a fight, however.
EKU (16-17, 12-6 OVC) cut a nine-point halftime deficit to seven twice early in the second half, but could not hit enough shots to get closer.
Tre King's jumper with 16:35 showing on the clock made it a 34-27 game, but the Bruins scored the next seven points to double their lead.
Ben Sheppard's lay-up at the 13:54 mark stretched the margin to 14, 41-27.
EKU's defense gave the squad one more chance to get back in the game.
After Seth Adelsperger's lay-up with 13 minutes remaining put the Belmont lead back to 14, the Bruins went nearly four minutes without scoring again.
The Colonels scored just five points during that time. Lachlan Anderson's old-fashioned three-point play cut it to nine, 43-34.
The Bruins answered when Grayson Murphy's jumper at the 9:10 mark ended the Belmont drought and the top seed led by double figures the rest of the way.
Russhard Cruickshank had a team-high 15 points for EKU. He hit on 4-of-6 from long range and was 5-of-8 from the field. Jomaru Brown scored 12 points and hauled in nine rebounds.
Cruickshank was a big part of the Colonels second-half rally and the junior said he was trying everything he could to put his seniors in a the championship game.
"I was motivated by my teammates. I just wanted to help our seniors and keep their run alive. I just wanted to keep winning for them," the guard said after the game.
EKU turned 14 offensive rebounds into 20 second-chance points and out-scored Belmont 16-13 in points off turnovers.
Adam Kunkel led the Bruins with 15 points. Murphy scored 10 points and grabbed eight rebounds.
Despite the end result, Hamilton said this year set a tone for the future of the men's basketball team.
"This is where our program is going. We are going to back next year with our young guys. Now they have experience playing in this game. I really excited about the direction of this program," the coach said.