As the streak grew longer, it seemed as if it became a foregone conclusion in the eyes of many that Murray State would simply run through the Ohio Valley Conference on their way to a Sears BracketBusters contest against Saint Mary's. Steve Prohm's head coaching career got off to a dream start, as the Racers won 23 straight games with Isaiah Canaan and Donte Poole leading the way. That run came to an end on Thursday night as the Racers fell 72-68 to a Tennessee State team that relied on balance to grab their eighth win in the last nine games.
Robert Covington led four Tigers in double figures with 17 points (and eight rebounds), scoring on a key tip-in with 1:25 remaining to give TSU a 69-65 lead. Just as important were the contributions of Kenny Moore (16 points) and Jordan Cyphers (ten points, three assists), who led a Tennessee State bench that outscored Murray State's reserves 30-10. Canaan scored 31 points to lead all scorers and Poole added ten but they were the only Murray State players to reach double figures, and their reliance on Canaan got the Racers in trouble down the stretch.
Jewuan Long's attempt to get Canaan (who was being double-teamed) was stolen by Patrick Miller and ultimately ended up in the hands of Covington, who missed both free throws to keep the score at 69-68. Canaan would drive the length of the floor before getting into trouble as he approached the foul line, ultimately turning the ball over and getting called for a foul with 3.5 seconds remaining. But if there's a question about how Murray handled their final possession (following a pair of Moore free throws), it would have to be why they attempted a length of the court baseball pass.
Why? The Racers had two timeouts remaining, and with that amount of time on the clock a play in which Murray State could complete the inbounds pass at around half court and use one of those timeouts may have been best. But hindsight is 20/20, and for a team that hasn't been in many situations like this down the stretch Murray State will get better from this.
The key: achieve better offensive balance, because while there certainly isn't a problem with Canaan and Poole being the primary options those two are going to need more consistent help. Outside of those two, Murray State shot 10-for-27 from the field, and the 18 turnovers the Racers racked up (Canaan: six) didn't help matters either. Does this outcome make the Saint Mary's game more important? From a seedind standpoint yes, due to the fact that Murray State is 3-0 against the RPI Top 100 and 12 of their 23 wins (three don't "count" in the NCAA evaluation process since they came against non-Division I opponents) are against teams with an RPI of 201 or worse.
But can someone honestly say with a straight face that Murray State, provided the wheels don't fall off, wouldn't be one of the 37 best teams should they not grab the OVC's automatic bid? Remember that bubble so many criticize (annually) for being weak? Let's step away from the ledge when discussing the at-large possibilities for Murray State, because there's a long way to go. The Racers now have the task of learning from their late-game miscues, and while this current team hasn't had to do that there's enough experience on the roster to make sure they do so.
Other Notable Happenings
1. Gonzaga not ready to hand over the WCC crown just yet.
There were many (myself included) who wondered if there was about to be a changing of the guard in the WCC on Thursday as Saint Mary's visited Gonzaga, as a win would give the Gaels a three-game lead with four to go. But the Bulldogs, who have won the last eleven regular season titles, weren't ready or willing to hand over the crown as they won 73-59. Kevin Pangos scored a game-high 27 points and three other starters reached double figures for the Bulldogs, who are now just a game behind Saint Mary's in the loss column. Matthew Dellavedova scored 20 points in a losing effort, but he shot 1-for-5 from the field in the second half and as a team the Gaels shot just 36% in the final 20 minutes.
By comparison the Bulldogs found just about any shot they wanted and knocked them down too, shooting 60% from the field (second half efficiency: 133.0) with Pangos scoring 15 of their 39 points. Robert Sacre, who wasn't a factor in the first meeting, scored 12 points and grabbed nine rebounds for the Bulldogs, who still have a home game against BYU on the schedule. Mark Few's team may not be in the driver's seat at this point, but if Saint Mary's is going to win the WCC the Bulldogs made sure it wasn't going to happen in their house.
2. As soon as we think we know who the Pac-12 frontrunner is, of course Washington gets blown out.
At this point it may be best to institute a rule stating that no one will attempt to anoint anone as the pacemaker in the Pac-12 race, because as soon as it seems like something is "known", that fact gets ripped to shreds. Lorenzo Romar's Huskies went to Eugene and got manhandled by Oregon, who raced out of the gates on an 8-0 run (all eight scored by Garrett Sim) and didn't look back until the 82-57 romp ended. Carlos Emory scored 16 points off the bench and Sim was one of three starters to score 13 points, and Dana Altman's team just looked far more prepared for what what going to happen on the floor than the Huskies.
That result dropped the Huskies into a tie for first with California, who took advantage of Maurice Jones picking up his third foul to whip USC 75-49. And just a game behind those two are Oregon, Arizona and Colorado, with the Wildcats beating the Buffaloes 71-57 thanks in part to double-doubles posted by Solomon Hill and Jesse Perry. Winners of three straight Arizona is the hottest team in this quintet, and with Utah visiting on Saturday afternoon it would be expected that the Wildcats earn the sweep. The Pac-12 needed some separation to ensure multiple NCAA bids (Cal and Arizona look to have the best resumes to date), but that doesn't seem likely to happen at this point.
3. Indiana proves to be too much for Illinois in the second half.
Illinois is a likely NCAA tournament team at this point, but they've done themselves no favors of late to say the least. The issue on Thursday night: Indiana's parade to the foul line, where they made 35 of 42 in their 84-71 win over the Fighting Illini. Illinois attempted just 15 free throws (making 12), and when a team can shoot 60% from the field and attempt 26 free throws (making 19) as Indiana did in the second half it's highly unlikely that they lose anywhere much less at sold-out Assembly Hall. Cody Zeller scored 22 points and grabbed five rebounds to lead the Hoosiers while Christian Watford and Victor Oladipo scored 18 apiece for a team that's won consecutive games for the first time since early January.
D.J. Richardson led the illini with 19 points and Meyers Leonard added 17, but the problem offensively for Illinois was that they essentially had three scorers to Indiana's four. Joe Bertrand and Tracy Abrams were both quiet in their starting roles, and Illinois made as many three-pointers as Indiana (seven) while attempting nine more (21-12). Indiana worked the ball inside of the arc for quality shots and it paid off, as they were frequent visitors to the foul line down the stretch. Bruce Weber's team has dropped five of their last six games, and with a trip to Michigan next on the schedule the Illini had better be careful. This isn't rock bottom, but things could spiral out of control if Illinois doesn't take care of their issues soon.
1. Minnesota was unable to take advantage of the opportunity to add a quality win to their resume as they fell at home to Wisconsin 68-61 in overtime. Wisconsin didn't make a field goal over the last ten-plus minutes of regulation but they were still able to get to the extra session, where Jordan Taylor and company took care of the Golden Gophers. At 17-8 overall and 5-7 in league play, Tubby Smith's squad still has home games against Ohio State, Michigan State and Indiana and they need to take advantage of those opportunities.
2. While transfers have played a major role in the success being enjoyed at Iowa State and Cal State Fullerton, it can be argued that the transfer with the biggest impact is Mississippi State's Arnett Moultrie. Moultrie scored 18 points and grabbed nine rebounds in the Bulldogs' 70-60 win over Ole Miss, and Dee Bost added 15 points and 13 assists. Moultrie's play has been a big reason why Mississippi State has been one of the best teams in the SEC.
3. The Horizon League featured a matchup of the top two teams in the standings, and unfortunately for Cleveland State they couldn't get much of anything going offensively. Valparaiso
jumped out to a 22-4 lead and really weren't challenged in a 59-41 win
to take over sole possession of first place. Unfortunately for the
Crusaders however, they lost Kevin Van Wijk to a knee injury in the
first half and did not return. More should be learned about his status
on Friday, and Van Wijk being out for an extended period of time would
be a tough blow to take.
4. The race of interest in the South Division of the SoCon has been the one for second place (and the other first round SoCon tournament bye) thanks to the play of first-place Davidson, and Georgia Southern took a big step towards grabbing that spot with a 63-49 win over Wofford. The Eagles, who were led by Eric Ferguson's 15 points and 11 rebounds, moved to 10-4 in conference play while dropping the Terriers to 8-6.
5. Guess who could be making a charge into the top three of the MAAC: Fairfield. The Stags moved to 9-4 in conference play with a 60-54 win over Manhattan, who sits alone in third with a 10-4 mark. Sydney Johnson's team was expected to be Iona's toughest challenger but things haven't worked out that way to this point. With a deep rotation led by the likes of Derek Needham and Rakim Sanders however, Fairfield is more than capable of winning the automatic bid.
6. The Summit League race took a turn in the wrong direction for South Dakota State on Thursday night as they lost 72-68 at South Dakota, dropping two games behind Oral Roberts in the loss column. The Golden Eagles beat IUPUI 76-74 in overtime with Roderick Pearson's driving shot as time expired being the difference.
7. With UCSB off Bob Burton's Cal State Fullerton Titans could have taken over sole possession of second place in the Big West and that they did, scoring 60 points in the second half of their 100-94 win over UC Irvine. D.J. Seeley and Kwame Vaughn combined to score 51 points as the Titans won despite not having the injured Omondi Amoke at their disposal. Long Beach State is the class of the Big West, but Fullerton is just as capable as UCSB of knocking the 49ers off in the conference tournament.
Three Notable Performances
1. C Ben Aird (Utah Valley)
24 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and three blocked shots in the Wolverines' 99-97 win at NJIT.
2. C Al'Lonzo Coleman (Presbyterian)
26 points (10-14 FG), 12 rebounds and two assists in the Blue Hose's 94-74 win over VMI. Coleman's shot 20-for-28 from the floor over the last two games.
3. G Alex Young (IUPUI)
34 points, seven rebounds and two steals in the Panthers' 76-74 overtime loss at Oral Roberts.