NASHVILLE — In a surprise season filled by feel-good moments, Eastern Kentucky appeared to have a clear path toward its best one yet.
The Colonels were not even five minutes into the second half of a fiercely contested Ohio Valley Conference Tournament semifinal Friday night with intrastate rival Murray State when Racers big man Ed Daniel picked up his fourth foul. With 15:17 left in the game and MSU clinging to a 50-49 lead, Daniel took his impressive Afro hairstyle and most of Murray State’s inside presence to the bench.
Yet instead of EKU seizing a golden chance to impose its will on the traditional OVC kingpin, we saw exhibit No. 1.18 million in how unpredictable college basketball can be.
While Daniel sat on the bench, his Murray State teammates — led by stellar senior guard Isaiah Canaan — unleashed a 14-4 run that turned a 50-49 Murray lead to a 64-53 one with 8:50 to go.
That provided just enough cushion to keep gritty EKU at bay as Murray State (21-9) held off the Colonels 81-73 in front of 3,977 mostly Murray fans in the Nashville Municipal Auditorium.
With the victory, Murray earned the right to defend its OVC Tournament title against league newcomer and OVC tourney top-seed Belmont (25-6). The winner will get the OVC’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“We’re 40 minutes from our goal,” Murray Coach Steve Prohm said. “But we’ve got to beat a tremendous team to get there.”
At the end of a year that began with Eastern picked to finish last in the OVC East Division and finished with the Colonels (24-9) setting a school record for victories in a season, it was hard for those in maroon to accept that there will be no NCAA tourney for EKU.
“We truly felt like this was going to have a different outcome tonight,” Eastern Coach Jeff Neubauer said.
It was at Murray State on Jan. 9 that EKU sent a calling card that its surprise season was legit. That night, EKU and its scrambling pressure defense forced 17 Racers turnovers and turned them into 29 points. That set the tone in a 77-65 EKU victory.
In Nashville on Friday, Murray committed only eight turnovers, hit 29 of 50 shots (58 percent) and assisted on 20 of its 29 field goals.
“I think our field-goal percentage defense tonight was close to 60 percent,” Neubauer said. “That’s not who we’ve been through the season.”
Still, EKU was right there with Murray through 25 minutes. Right up until Daniel, the rugged 6-foot-7, 228-pound Birmingham, Ala., product, went to the Racers bench. Yet rather than sag without its best big man, Murray’s defense attacked.
Canaan got the game-deciding run started with a conventional three-point play to put Murray up 53-51. That was the game’s 18th lead change. It was also the final one.
Over the course of the decisive 14-4 binge, Canaan also added an emphatic tomahawk dunk — after which, he appeared to flex his muscles — and a cold-blooded three-pointer from deep in the left corner.
“I have a lot of passion,” Canaan said of his flexing, “and I was just trying to motivate my team anyway I can.”
On the night he became the sixth Murray State player to go over 2,000 career points, Canaan finished with 29 points, four rebounds and six assists.
Eastern, with its four-guard lineup and harrying style, fought back and pulled within four (69-65) on two Glenn Cosey free throws with 3:37 left. That was as close as EKU got.
Neubauer said he did not think his team relaxed when Daniel left the court with foul trouble.
“I do not think teams relax because a guy gets four fouls,” Neubauer said. “I just think Murray State did a very good job (defensively) keeping us out of the paint.”
Big man Eric Stutz, a 6-8 sophomore, led EKU with 18 points. Guards Mike DiNunno (15 points), Corey Walden (13 points, seven rebounds) and Cosey (also 13 points and seven rebounds) also reached double figures though they did not shoot well (combined 9-of-32 from the floor).
Even though EKU will not make its first NCAA tourney appearance since 2007, its season may not be over.
Will 24 wins and an RPI of 66 (going into Friday) be enough to earn Eastern an NIT bid (pray tell, maybe even against Kentucky)?
“We’re certainly in the (NIT) conversation,” Neubauer said. “Do we end up getting a bid at the end? I don’t know.”