Bradley Beal Elite is likely to be well-represented in this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, and the first BBE alum to book a ticket to the big dance is Southeast Missouri State University sophomore Phillip Russell.
Phillip continued a standout sophomore season, in which he was named First Team All-Ohio Valley Conference, with 21 points in the OVC Championship game as SEMO with an 89-82 overtime win over Tennessee Tech. That win completed a magical four-day run through the OVC tournament for Southeast Missouri State to make the Division I NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2000.
The first men's NCAA tourney ticket is punched!@SEMOMBB is going dancing for the first time in 23 years! 👏 pic.twitter.com/X9RCqvMaE0
— ESPN (@espn) March 5, 2023
As a St. Louis native, getting SEMO back to the dance was a surreal feeling for Phillip Russell.
“I really can’t explain it,” Phillip told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Everybody was dancing around. I just started walking around, like ‘Wow, like we did it. Four days, four games, going 4-0.’ It just didn’t feel real.”
Southeast Missouri State entered the tournament ranked fifth in the conference, with a 19-16 record that wasn’t going to be enough to get them an at-large big to the NCAA Tournament.
The only way in was to win, and they did so again and again and again and again.
They started the conference tournament with a dominant win over Lindenwood, followed by grinding out a win over No. 4 seed Tennessee State. That victory put SEMO into the tournament semifinals against regular season conference champion, top-seeded Morehead State. After averaging nearly 90 points per game over their first two wins, Southeast Missouri State found themselves in a defensive battle with Morehead but they emerged victorious to move on to the championship game.
“The guys have been (saying) all week, like ‘My legs hurt, my legs hurt,’” Phillip said. “I’m like. ‘We made it this far, we might as well get the job done.’”
In the title game, Phillip had his best performance of the tournament. He entered overtime with 14 points, but scored the game-winning bucket with 1:12 to go and then closed the game at the free-throw line, where he went 5-6 to clinch the win and send SEMO to just the second Division I NCAA Tournament appearance and second OVC Tournament title in school history. Those final two free throws also pushed Phillip over 1,000 career points.
Regardless of what happens in the NCAA Tournament, making it this far puts a big bow on a banner season for Phillip in his second year at SEMO. He raised his scoring average by five points this season, averaging 18.2 points per game, to lead the team and rank second in the conference. He added five assists per game, also a team high and second in the OVC, nearly three boards per game and 1.5 steals per game. He also shot better than 36 percent from three, third on the team. He had some incredible performances throughout the season, twice tying the school’s single game record for points in a NCAA Division I game with 37 against Morehead State on January 14th and against Little Rock on February 2nd. He scored in double figures in all but one of his 29 games and topped 20 points on 10 occasions.
FIRST-TEAM ALL-OVC guard Phillip Russell is 71 points away from getting 1,000 in his career. Russell is second in the league in scoring with 18 ppg. He scored 20 or more points on 10 occasions this season and put up 37 twice. pic.twitter.com/sqilhQ25wr
— SEMO Men’s Basketball 🏀⚫️🔴🏆 (@SEMOMBB) February 28, 2023
Those numbers earned him an All-Ohio Valley Conference First Team nod for the first time in his career. Now he gets a chance to make his mark in the NCAA Tournament.