Men's Basketball

Mark Story: Murray State ready for prime time

Murray State's Ivan Aska dunked over Tennessee State's Robert Covington during the Racers' victory in the championship game of the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament.
Murray State's Ivan Aska dunked over Tennessee State's Robert Covington during the Racers' victory in the championship game of the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament. ASSOCIATED PRESS

NASHVILLE — The question kept bringing smiles to Murray State faces.

OK, Racers, how would you like to play intrastate David to the University of Kentucky's Goliath in the NCAA Tournament?

"That would be nice," MSU forward Ed Daniel said, grinning. "It would be nice if we could play Kentucky."

Added Murray guard Jewuan Long: "We would like to see Kentucky, we would. But whether we do or not, I don't care. I'm just happy to be going to the NCAA Tournament."

Before a heavily pro-Murray crowd of 6,454 in the Nashville Municipal Auditorium on Saturday, the Racers (30-1) booked their ticket to Bracketville in a dramatic finals of the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament. Down seven to nemesis Tennessee State with only 5:31 left, No. 12 Murray State then held TSU scoreless the final 3:45 and won 54-52 on Long's driving bank shot with 4.3 seconds left.

"I can't say enough about our guys," first-year Murray State head coach Steve Prohm said. "We're down seven, and we just make a big play, make a big play. ... It's what we've done all year."

In vanquishing Tennessee State (20-12) — the team that handed MSU its only loss of the season, 72-68, in Murray on Feb. 9 — Prohm's Racers showed both the grit that could make them dangerous in the Big Dance and a weakness that could send them packing early.

The knock on Murray in terms of its becoming this season's Butler or Virginia Commonwealth is that the Racers lack the length and defensive presence on the front line it takes to beat schools from the BCS conferences. MSU's two primary front-court players, the burly Ivan Aska and Daniel, are both 6-foot-7.

Tennessee State, with a roster stocked with athletic forwards of 6-foot-8 or more, scored 22 field goals Saturday. Thirteen came on layups or dunks.

What makes Murray dangerous in March is exceptional guard play and a veteran know-how to win. Both were on display when it mattered Saturday.

Junior guard Isaiah Cannon has been the Batman of the Racers' season. Senior Donte Poole has been the Robin. Long, also a senior, sometimes gets overshadowed but is Murray's fourth-leading scorer and helps Cannon with the ball-handling.

With the OVC tourney championship seemingly slipping away and Murray down 50-43, all three made vital plays under pressure.

First Poole, a 6-3 Las Vegas product, rifled in a three-point bomb to pull MSU within four. Then he struck again with a 6-foot runner to cut the Racers deficit to two.

After the teams traded baskets, Daniel, a 59.8-percent foul shooter coming into the game, hit a pair of tension-packed foul shots with 1:01 left to tie the game. Tennessee State then turned the ball over with 30.3 seconds left.

The 37-year-old Prohm, who replaced his mentor Billy Kennedy before this season after the latter left Murray for Texas A&M, eschewed the timeout and put the ball in the hands of Cannon.

The Biloxi, Miss., product showed the "feel for the game" one would expect from a player being touted for All-America honors.

As the game clock ticked down, TSU ran two men at Cannon. Reading the play, Cannon tried to drive but then dished the ball to Long in the corner.

Long gave a brief shot fake, charged toward the rim and banked in a short runner with 4.3 seconds left.

Said Cannon: "I told the guys all season long, if you are ever open and I'm not, I'm going to give it to you and I'm going to love you whether you make it or not. (Long) knew I trusted him and he went and made the shot."

Now, Murray seems poised to enter the NCAA Tournament with the highest seed for an OVC team since the tourney expanded to 64 teams in 1985. In 1998, the Racers were a nine seed and lost a first-round game to Rhode Island.

In its most recent bracketology, has this year's Murray as a six.

Where should the Racers be seeded?

"If you really look at what we've done over the landscape of the season, you could really make a case for a two seed," Prohm said. "You're 30-1. ... You've got three (Southern Mississippi, Memphis and St. Mary's) top-30 wins. You haven't lost a road game or a neutral site game all season.

"But I understand the business side of it. So, I'm hoping, four, five, six."

Asked if the Murray players would like a crack at No. 1 UK, Prohm, too, smiled.

"In the Sweet 16," he said.