Despite an 8-21 record and elimination from postseason contention, the last-place UT Martin Skyhawks gave the Racers everything they could handle for roughly 35 minutes Thursday night.
Murray State mounted a late second-half push, however, propelling the Racers to an 86-72 victory over the Skyhawks.
The Racers clung to a small lead for the majority of the game, but struggled to put the pesky Skyhawks away.
The two teams continued battling after the whistles as well, culminating in an exchange of words after a tough battle for possession. Both coaches came onto the floor to separate their players and cool down players’ tempers.
“The trash talking gives me confidence,” freshman guard Cameron Payne said. “It makes me want to play harder and I just love it when people try to talk to me like that.”
Payne turned in a big performance, scoring 17 points and racking up a team-high eight assists.
UT Martin sophomore Dee Oldham drained a deep 3 as the first half expired, pulling the Skyhawks within one at the break.
“Credit to them,” Prohm said. “They were resilient in the first half. We just weren’t consistently guarding and their guys were making shots. We gave up a couple 50-50 balls around the rim and we just let them hang around.”
After giving up 41 points in the first half, the Murray State defense put up a much stronger effort after the break, limiting the Skyhawks to 31 second-half points.
“I just think we played a little bit better,” Prohm said. “We were fortunate they missed some free throws. They made some tough shots in the first half and we just really weren’t locked in.”
Junior T.J. Sapp gave the Racers the push they needed, scoring eight straight points in the second half to extend the Murray State lead to double digits. Sapp finished with 20 points.
UT Martin never recovered, scoring only four points over the final 4:43 of the game.
“We just had to keep chipping away,” Payne said. “Coach was setting mini goals for us during media timeouts so we just kept chipping away and trying to get stops.”
The Racers now prepare for a trip to Southeast Missouri State Saturday night to wrap up the regular season before heading to the OVC Tournament in Nashville, Tenn., next week.
SEMO holds the seventh of eight spots in the OVC Tournament. Led by junior guard Jarekious Bradley’s 19.6 points per game, the Redhawks will be fighting for their tournament seeding in the regular season finale against the Racers.
Murray State has already locked up the top spot in the OVC West and will have a double-bye into the semi-final round of the OVC Tournament. They will play Friday night in Nashville for a spot in the championship game and a chance at an automatic NCAA Tournament berth.
Though Murray State’s postseason position is already solidified, Saturday’s game still carries high stakes as a Racer victory will clinch at least a share of the OVC regular season championship.
Murray State and Belmont remain tied atop the conference, but a Bruins loss and a Murray State win would leave the Racers as the sole champion. If both teams win their final games, the title would be shared.
“It could be a special day,” Prohm said. “We’re going to have to go get some rest first. We’ve got some guys beat up a little bit right now.”
The Racers and Redhawks tip off Saturday at 5:30 p.m. in Cape Girardeau, Mo.
Story by Jonathan Ferris, Staff writer