When Murray State trailed by 11 with 1:12 left to play, fans in attendance probably did not think the Racers would have a chance at a game-tying buzzer beater.
That’s exactly the scenario junior guard T.J. Sapp found himself in, however, when he stole an in-bounds pass with three and a half seconds to go.
Sapp streaked up the court with the ball for the final shot which could have sent the conference’s top two teams into overtime.
Senior guard Dexter Fields said he thought Sapp had a good chance at making the basket.
“I looked at the clock and there were two-something seconds left and Sapp is pretty fast,” Fields said. “He got the closest he could and he had a pretty good look at it. To be honest with you I thought it was going in, but the shot just didn’t fall.”
Sapp’s shot rimmed out as time expired, handing Murray State a heartbreaking 99-96 defeat.
The Racers trailed by as many as 14 points early in the first half. The Murray State defense couldn’t contain Belmont’s senior duo of guard J.J. Mann and forward Blake Jenkins, who combined for 50 of the Bruins’ 99 points.
“We just weren’t able to defend them for 40 minutes,” said Head Coach Steve Prohm. “We defended them at times, but they really hit us with a couple big bursts. What we found out tonight was that our kids have a lot of grit and a lot of character, but we just have to show a better resiliency on the defensive end for 40 minutes.”
The Racers battled back, thanks in large part to strong play from freshman guard Cameron Payne. The first-year point guard scored a career-high 29 points and tallied five assists and four rebounds.
Murray State retook the lead with 4:22 left in the first half, and the teams headed into the locker room tied at 45.
Foul trouble took its toll on the Racers as they tried to keep pace with Belmont’s blistering offense in the second half.
Three Murray State starters found themselves with four fouls each with more than seven minutes to play, forcing Prohm to leave much of his offensive production on the bench.
“(The foul trouble) hurt,” Prohm said. “Our depth is one of our Achilles’ heels with our team. Our core is really just six guys. Maybe I should have gone a little deeper into our bench at times, but the game wasn’t presenting itself where I thought we could.”
Belmont began to pull away as the second half wound down. Staying at a deficit between seven and 11 points, the depleted Racers began to lose their cool.
The frustration boiled over with 1:15 to play as Prohm lost his temper with the officials and drew a costly technical foul. Mann hit one of the ensuing free throws to push the Bruins’ lead back to nine.
“I do want to apologize for my actions on the sideline,” Prohm said. “I probably got a little bit too animated with some of the officiating. I thought I showed a little bit of youth there. I have to be better with that.”
The Racers refused to let Prohm’s technical rattle them, however, as they worked to cut into the deficit in the game’s final minute.
Junior forward Jarvis Williams forced a turnover and found Payne for an open three to cut the Racers’ deficit to four with 46 seconds to play.
“It was encouraging that we showed that we have great character and some toughness,” Prohm said. “If you told me we’d give up 99 down here, I wouldn’t think our chances of winning would be very good. We got a chance to tie it and really if I don’t get that technical foul, that shot is for a chance to win the game.”
The loss drops Murray State to 8-2 in conference play. The Racers still maintain a strong grip on first place in the OVC West, but now trail Belmont for the top overall spot in the conference.
The Racers continue their road trip Saturday night when they visit Tennessee State.
The Tigers have had a subpar season thus far, as they have posted a 2-9 conference record – leaving them in the bottom spot in the conference.
Murray State will have to deal with the conference’s leading scorer, however, as Tennessee State is led by senior guard Patrick Miller.
Miller, the All-OVC First Team selection, averages 23.3 points and four assists per game.
The Racers return to the CFSB Center for a three-game home stand against Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Eastern Illinois and Morehead State.
Murray State and Tennessee State tip off Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. in Nashville, Tenn.
Story by Jonathan Ferris, Staff writer