When news of a suspension for SIUE’s leading scorer Jerome Simpson came down 30 minutes prior to tipoff,
it seemed as if the Racers might have an easy time with the 8-13 Cougars, Thursday night in Edwardsville, Ill.
Unfortunately for Murray State, the Cougars didn’t miss him one bit.
“I knew when I found out they kicked the one kid off the team, I knew it was going to be a different team,” Murray State Head Coach Steve Prohm said. “I knew they were going to have a different focus, and they did.”
Junior guard Tim Johnson stepped into a starting role for just the second time this season.
He filled in nicely for the suspended Jones, scoring nine points on 4-11 shooting from the field, while also chipping in seven rebounds and logging a team high 38 minutes.
“Tim stepped up,” senior forward Mark Yelovich said. “I thought Tim could do that all year. He’s a great player where he can be a starter all year. Guys definitely stepped up and we’re going to need that all season.”
Johnson made an immediate impact, scoring five of the Cougars first nine points. After five minutes of play, SIUE’s hot start had Murray State trailing 11-6.
Both teams battled for the remainder of the first half, swapping runs and keeping each other in sight.
With five seconds to go, Isaiah Canaan found Brandon Garrett down the floor for an easy dunk to give the Racers a 30-28 halftime lead.
“I think Murray State is a great team in the second half,” SIUE Head Coach Lennox Forrester said.” … “We knew the second half was their half, so we had to make sure we were very solid in the first half and then match their intensity in the second half and I thought our guys did that.”
Murray State struggled to hit shots in the second half. Shooting just 31 percent from the field and 18 percent from 3-point range, the Cougar defense made it difficult for the Racers to get anything going.
The teams continued to trade shots until the 9:28 mark when the Cougars went on a 9-3 run, storming out to a 53-45 lead with 6:12 to play.
The Racers attempted a comeback, but an offensive rebound by Johnson with 37 seconds remaining forced the Racers to foul. The Cougars made free throws down the stretch and the clock struck zero on a 65-60 Murray State loss.
In recent games, the team had improved in the turnover department, averaging just seven in the last three games. The struggles returned Thursday night, however as the Racers gave it up 17 times. Seniors Canaan, Stacy Wilson and Latreze Mushatt combined for 13 of the giveaways.
It‘s just one of those games … one of those games,” Mushatt said. “Three seniors, we turned it over a few times and we know what we did wrong. We’re going to watch film tomorrow or tonight and see what we did wrong and try to correct it tomorrow and Saturday.”
Canaan was also held in check offensively for most of the game. Though he finished with 20 points, he struggled from the field, making just 7-22 shots.
The pain of the loss intensified when the Racers found out Belmont had also lost to Tennessee State earlier in the evening. With the Bruins loss, the Racers would have taken over the top spot in the conference and been closer to defending their three consecutive championships – had they won.
“We had a break go our way where if we would finish out well, we could win four (championships) in a row,” Prohm said, “and we just couldn’t get it done. That doesn’t mean it’s over yet, but we had opportunities … This is a bad loss just because of the ramifications of it. It’s a tough, tough loss.”
The Racers continue their road trip Saturday as they travel to Charleston, Ill. to face Eastern Illinois. Now desperately needing a win, Mushatt believes the team must now get back to work and improve its focus.
“(We just have to ) come and practice hard tomorrow,” Mushatt said. “We can’t take any team lightly and we figured it out right now. They came out and wanted it more than us and we got to do better than that.”
The Racers and Panthers tipoff at 6 p.m. Saturday.
Story by Jonathan Ferris, Staff writer.