After the Racers 73-62 victory over South Dakota State, Saturday night, senior forward Stacy Wilson said he dreamed of playing in those types of games as a kid.
“As a kid growing up, you dream of games like this,” Wilson said. “It was very fun.”
In an electric CFSB Center filled with 7,231 Racer fans, the Racers played in their ninth and final BracketBusters contest in front of a nation-wide ESPN 2 viewing audience. The game featured two of the top scorers in the country. It featured Murray State senior Isaiah Canaan and South Dakota State senior Nate Wolters.
Senior guard Dexter Fields started the game with an immediate 3-pointer in the Racers’ first possession. South Dakota State responded, catching fire from the 3-point range. The Jackrabbits found wide open shots and went on to shoot 55 percent from behind the arc in the first half.
With the game tied at 16 at the 10:28 mark of the first half, South Dakota State junior guard Chad White drained a 3-point shot to kick off an impressive 16-2 Jackrabbits run. The Racers suddenly found themselves in a 32-18 hole, forcing Murray State Head Coach Steve Prohm to call a timeout to regroup his team with 5:17 to halftime.
The Racers responded as Canaan immediately sank a 3-point shot and snagged a steal 16 seconds later. He was able to find Wilson for a 3-pointer of his own and the 14-point deficit shrank to eight 50 seconds after Prohm’s timeout. The Racers finished the first half strong and headed into the locker room trailing 39-33.
The 3’s continued to fall after the break as South Dakota State kicked off the second half with two in a row. Canaan responded with one of his own, and found Dexter Fields 20 seconds later for another.
The turning point of the game came at the 12:01 mark of the second half. With Canaan on the bench and the Racers trailing by eight, Wilson stole the ball from Wolters and took it all the way to the rim for a slam dunk. With deafening support from the crowd, C.J. Ford snagged a rebound and tossed it to Wilson for his second breakaway dunk in 30 seconds.
“Stacy was great defensively,” Prohm said. “He got some steals, and that was really what turned us around right there when we made the run to get the game back narrowed down.”
Canaan took over offensively, scoring 16 points in the second half. He would finish the night with 22 points, going 8-15 from the field and 5-10 from 3-point range. The Murray State defense locked in as the Jackrabbits would go on to score eight more points in the game’s final 12 minutes.
“We just tried to get a spark on the defensive end and turn our defense into offense,” Canaan said. “My teammates did a great job. I went out to get a breather and they went on a run and I told coach just to let them stay out there and they did a great job. When I got back in we just sealed the game.”
Perhaps the most encouraging sign for the Racers was the stellar play of freshmen guards Jeffery Moss and Ford. Moss played 29 minutes – second only to Canaan – and tallied seven points and a team-leading seven rebounds. Moss also chipped in defensively, holding Wolters in check while Canaan caught his breath on the bench.
Ford logged 14 minutes, and also provided a strong defensive presence while chipping in four points and two assists.
“(Moss and Ford) are stepping up at the right time of the season,” Fields said. “They’ve been putting in a lot of work off the court and it’s showing on the court. (Ford) is coming in playing great defense, attacking the basket and getting open shots. (Moss) is playing great defense and hitting open shots. They’re taking on big roles when we need a break and I credit them for that.”
In the final year of the ESPN BracketBusters event, the win moves Murray State to 7-2 all time in the games. The games scheduled by ESPN have brought national exposure to mid-major programs across the nation, and the Racers have benefited greatly, earning nationally-televised games in each of the last three seasons.
“We’ve benefitted greatly from (Bracketbusters),” Prohm said, “from national exposure and from people getting to know our program and our team and this University. It’s disappointing its ending – I understand why it’s ending – but I think it’s great to have games like this that mean a lot whether it’s seeding down the road or just getting people familiar with our programs.”
The stellar 7-2 record marks Murray State as one of the most successful programs to participate during the event’s 11-year history.
With just two home games remaining before the OVC Tournament in Nashville, Tenn., the Racers will look to finish strong as UT Martin comes to visit Thursday night. The regular season ends at the CFSB Center Sunday against Southeast Missouri.
Story by Jonathan Ferris, Staff writer