It was a tearful ending for the Murray State men’s basketball team as its season came to a close Saturday night in Louisville, Ky., with a 62-53 loss to No. 3 seed Marquette in the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
And Head Coach Steve Prohm tried to take all the responsibility for it.
“I just apologized to them for not being able to figure something out to get through those last seven minutes, probably just the last five minutes where we were right there, we just couldn’t figure it out, couldn’t make a shot or a layup,” Prohm said. “I mean, if we make one or two shots it’s a different game we just couldn’t do it, so I apologized to them for that.”
Senior guard Jewuan Long, with obvious sadness in his voice, recapped Prohm’s emotional locker room speech:
“He thanked the seniors first, saying how much we meant to him and he tried to put it on himself but us players won’t let that happen,” Long said. “We do everything as a team, we win as a team and we lose as a team. He’s a great coach, anytime something goes wrong he wants to put it on himself but you can’t do that all the time. He just told us that it hurt right now but in a few days after this we’re going to look back and see all the great things we’ve done for Murray State and the community.”
One of those accomplishments include the seniors graduating as the winningest team in program history, ending their careers at Murray State posting a 104-27 record, surpassing the 99-win record set by the 1996-2000 graduating class.
Other records set by this year’s team include being a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament, a record-high for Murray State as well as the highest-ever for an OVC team, being the last unbeaten team in the country and entering the tournament as the only team with one loss.
“I just want to say how proud I am of our 14 players and of our program and of our University and especially of these three seniors who leave Murray State as the winningest class in the history of the school,” Prohm said. “I think also we proved today that we belonged on a national stage. We just weren’t good enough the last seven minutes.”
The Racers, in their new gold and gray tournament shoes, got the ball at the tip then began the game with three turnovers and Marquette scored early, putting the Golden Eagles on the board with a free throw and layup three minutes in.
Less than a minute later, Long stole the ball, passed to junior guard Isaiah Canaan who dribbled toward half court and looked at Prohm for direction before draining a three and tying the game.
Marquette responded with a layup before Long, in similar fashion to the play that clinched the OVC Championship game, floated the ball in to tie the game at five less than five minutes into the first half. Long would then go to the line and make both free throws to give the Racers its first lead of the game.
Marquette answered by draining a three to take the lead once again in a first half battle displaying both teams matching the other point for point.
Long stepped up and led scoring for the first 11 minutes of play with Canaan being the only other scorer for Murray State until senior forward Ivan Aska was fouled getting a layup and made his free throw to give the Racers a one-point lead.
Senior guard Donte Poole, who played with a broken nose without a mask, missed a three-point attempt with 6:06 on the clock before retrieving the ball and getting a bucket for the Racers.
Marquette took the lead before Jae Crowder missed a three and the crowd, predominantly pro-Murray State, began jeering “air-ball” screams to the Golden Eagles’ starter.
With 3:32 remaining in the half Canaan passed the ball to junior guard Stacy Wilson who drove to the basket and faked a shot with a pass to Long who passed to junior forward Ed Daniel who secured the layup to take the lead, 23-21.
After Marquette secured a layup of its own, Daniel returned to the basket 15 seconds after his first layup to connect on a jumper and give the Racers another two point lead.
Freshman guard Zay Jackson, guarding Marquette’s Junior Cadougan, whom he played against his junior year of high school, finally connected on a three with 39.6 seconds remaining in the half to push the Racers lead to five points.
With 12 seconds left in the half, the crowd was on its feet as Murray State had the ball, however, Marquette stole the ball and made a layup at the buzzer to end the half with Murray State leading 28-25.
Coming out of the half, Crowder went to the line for Marquette and made both free throws, leaving Murray State with a one-point lead.
Daniel blocked Marquette then passed the ball to Canaan who made an over-the-head layup and brought the crowd to its feet just seconds before Daniel grabbed a rebound then ran the court to block Crowder’s layup.
Canaan went to the line and made two free throws that allowed Murray State to take the lead once again. With 17:04 on the clock the Racers led 32-30.
Five minutes into the second half Marquette went on a 6-2 run as Mushatt missed a jumper. Despite Long stealing the ball, Poole missed an attempt from behind the arc.
With less than 10 seconds remaining on the shot clock and 11:43 on the game clock, Canaan drained a three to decrease the Golden Eagles’ lead to one point.
A foul by Poole put Marquette’s Darius Johnson-Odom at the line and his free throw took the score to 39-37 in the Golden Eagles’ favor with 9:59 on the clock.
Less than 30 seconds later, Aska grabbed an offensive rebound and made a layup to tie the game before Marquette got a layup of its own to regain the lead.
Long came off the bench to get a layup and tie the game at 41 with 8:31 remaining before Poole got a three and the Yum! Center exploded with cheers from the crowd of more than 21,000 people.
Daniel, giving one of the best performances of his career, came within one rebound of tying the all-time rebounding mark for a Murray State tournament game with 14. Popeye Jones had 15 in 1992 against the Michigan State Spartans.
“It was the most physical game I’ve played in,” Daniel said. “I like the physicality, me being the physical player I am. It helps me a lot playing against bigger players – it makes me work harder.”
With just more than seven minutes remaining Murray State had a five-point lead that decreased as Marquette slowed the Racers by making free throws and going on an 8-0 run before Aska got his own rebound and a bucket to take the score to 49-48, Marquette.
The Golden Eagles answered Aska’s layup with one of their own then a three-pointer to take a six-point lead.
With 1:16 left in the game, Prohm called a timeout, reached in his pocket, grabbed his Chapstick and applied two sweeps of lip moisturizer before commencing his 30-second timeout speech.
The Racers came out of the huddle trailing 55-49.
Aska blocked Marquette, Long stole the ball and passed to Canaan who passed back to Long who had positioned himself under the basket for a layup to put the Racers within four points, but the Golden Eagles continued to hit free throws to end the game.
The Racers ended the game going 4-for-21 behind the arc, a stark contrast to the team’s normal three-point percentage.
“That’s where a lot of our points come from, that’s what we relied on pretty much all year,” Poole said. “I mean, that’s what we made our living in, so we’ve just got to live with it or die with it and today we just died with it.”
Poole said the team never stopped fighting.
“You fight all year to get to this point,” Poole said in the postgame press conference. “We just fought through so much adversity, injuries, critics, media. I think we went through everything and we battled through it and together, as a team, we conquered it. So going into this game, we really were confident about it. We thought we would come out with a win, so for it to end like this you’re upset but you just got to look at all the great things that we’ve done this season as well.”
The seniors spoke to the team in the locker room after the game and offered encouragement and emotional support.
“The season is over but it don’t stop,” Long said in the locker room after the game. “They have a great group of guys coming back and a great recruiting class as well, they can have an even better year next year and make it even farther than we did this year in the tournament. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what they do next year.”
Jackson, in his first year of college ball, soaked up everything from his senior teammates.
“They spoke and we were listening,” Jackson said. “They gave their love out to the rest of us. They told us not to let this keep us down and to keep it going for next year. They all know that we all love them and appreciate them. They are great leaders – I would not ask for anybody else.”