Racers ‘Drive the Piling’ past Morehead in OVC semifinal

Jenny Rohl/The News Sophomore point guard and OVC Player of the Year Cameron Payne goes up for a layup against a Morehead State defender.

Jenny Rohl/The News
Sophomore point guard and OVC Player of the Year Cameron Payne goes up for a layup against a Morehead State defender.

The Racers took the court by storm Friday night at Municipal Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn. Sporting navy T-shirts reading simply ‘DTP’ on the front and ‘#TSUNAMI’ on the back, the team was boldly representing their mantra: Drive the Piling. Murray State and Morehead State University fans alike had traveled in swarms to engulf the auditorium in blue and gold.

The Racers’ regular season of success was a constant looming presence in Municipal as the announcer read Murray State’s recent all-conference accolades. No players from Morehead State received post-season awards from the OVC for their 15-16 regular season this year.

The Racers won the tip and sophomore point guard Cameron Payne was quick to put a short shot in for the Racers. Redshirt sophomore guard Corban Collins quickly returned the favor downcourt, putting in a 3-pointer for the Eagles. The fans were deafening and the game action was fast-paced as each team went back and forth exchanging the lead.

A quick lob from Payne to junior forward Jeffery Moss downcourt was skillfully passed on to senior forward Jarvis Williams who came down with a leaping one-handed jam to tie the game at eight with just under 17 minutes to play in the first half. Williams was just as intense on defense as he silenced the crowd with a huge block. The noise in the auditorium was amplified on court as each team played with a sense of urgency unseen at their matchup earlier this season.

The Eagles led for a short period as both teams spent almost as much time on the floor as they did on their feet. The game was fast and physical as fouls were rampant on both sides. A technical was called on Morehead State’s junior forward Anthony Elechi with just over 12 minutes to play in the half, and the arena came to life with cheers as the play was reviewed. Williams took to the line first and made two individually before Moss did the same during his turn. This series of free throws cut Morehead’s lead to just one point. Senior guard T.J. Sapp regained the lead for the Racers 16-15 with a layup seconds after the inbound.

Morehead quickly tied the Racers in fouls as Payne tacked two more free throws onto Murray State’s score. The Eagles are currently second in the nation in fouls per game. Sapp laid another bucket in before senior forward Jonathan Fairell floated one in, making it a two-possession game for the Eagles. They tied it minutes later with Payne on the bench, but Sapp stole the lead back with a long 3-pointer from outside.

Redshirt sophomore guard Justin Seymour missed a 1-1 free throw just seconds before Williams followed suit. On their next possession, Williams worked to rebound multiple times before laying one in.  Sapp was fouled in the face on defense and traveled downcourt to sink both of his free throws. Another layup by Williams and a made and-one later, the Racers led 32-24 with under five minutes left in the half.

Sapp and Payne laid a bucket in each, split by just one Eagle basket. Moss found himself in foul trouble with three as the clock hit 2:26 in the half. Frustration was obvious on the Eagles’ side as a pass intended for senior guard Angelo Warner bounced off his shoulder and went out of bounds. As Morehead struggled to communicate, Payne quickly snuck it downcourt and laid one in before being laid out himself under the basket.

A flagrant foul was called on Warner under the Eagle basket as Fairell came down clean with a rebound. With just 17.8 seconds in the half, Fairell went 0-2 at the line before Sapp took over and went 2-0. The score was removed, however, as the play was reversed and both players were forced to shoot again. Sapp made both, again, and Fairell made one of his on the second try.

“I won’t comment on that, but it worked out for us,” Head Coach Steve Prohm joked after the game. “We’ll move on. These guys joke about it, but I don’t make enough money to say anything.”

At the half, the Racers led the Eagles 43-32. Sapp led the team in points, entering the locker room with 15 in addition to two rebounds while Williams closely followed. He racked up 13 points, five rebounds and two blocks.

The Racers hit a dry spell early in the second half as the Eagles cut the score to six points. Moss ended the scoreless run with a layup before finding himself on the floor, a common theme of the game. Fairell slammed one in and the Racers were up by eight again before he fouled Morehead’s Brent Arrington downcourt.

A long 3-pointer by Payne bounced out of the basket and Fairell pulled down the rebound before it wobbled out-of-bounds. Payne crouched and slammed the floor with both hands in frustration before Morehead put in another bucket on their possession. At the first media timeout, the Racers led by seven as Morehead’s redshirt senior forward Karam Mashour prepared to take the free throw line. Senior guard Kareem Storey swooshed a 3-pointer to make it a two-point game before Moss floated one in to distance the Racers again.

Morehead’s redshirt junior forward Brent Arrington took the lead for the Eagles 52-51 with under 14 minutes to play before Payne made two free throws for another lead change. The game got scrappy and fans were jeering the officials as the game went back and forth. Fairell racked up his third foul with 8:40 to play before Prohm called a timeout.

The Eagles went on an 11-0 scoring run in just two minutes and 30 seconds to lead by 10 points with under eight minutes to play.

“I’m out there still smiling,” Williams said after the game. “Because we’ve been in those situations plenty of times this year and that’s what we expected coming in today. Being in that type of situation where we’re down and we have to fight back.”

Payne ended the Racers’ drought with a 3-pointer before Sapp fouled downcourt and Storey went 2-2 at the line. Williams jammed one in much to the crowd’s content, and Moss followed suit shortly after. With the Eagle’s leading by seven, Payne struggled to remain calm as the crowd booed the officiating. He fouled for the third time of the game before floating one in on the next possession. His focus was on Morehead’s Storey as he defended fiercely downcourt. After a short talk from Prohm, he was calm and returned to his element with a 3-pointer, cutting the lead to just three points. An Eagle airball was knocked out of bounds as Racer fans stood and filled the auditorium with screams. Payne took his fourth foul with almost four minutes to play after a ball was stolen from him for a breakaway.

Williams put in another dunk for the Racers before Fairell fouled for the fourth time. With two players in foul trouble, Moss calmed the team and excited the crowd with a floater keeping the Eagles’ lead to just two points. Payne stole the ball from Storey, drawing a foul at the same time. A calm pass from Moss gave Williams an opportunity to tie the game, which he did in style with a slam. The Racers screamed their approval on the court as Morehead called a timeout with 1:31 to play.

It came down to the wire as Storey put up two for the Racers before Payne regained the lead with a 3-pointer. The Eagles had a chance to regain the lead but their shot bounced out. Fairell pulled down the rebound before Prohm called a timeout with 25.3 seconds left in the game.

“I don’t say much, to be honest,” Prohm said. “They’ll probably tell you that. I try to just stay as calm as I can and keep them confident.”

Sapp drew a foul with 22 seconds to play and made his first shot at the line to increase the Racers’ lead to two points. Morehead called a timeout before Sapp returned to the line to make his second, as well. With less than ten seconds to play, Morehead airballed a 3-pointer before the Racers knocked it out of bounds. Morehead opted to use their last timeout of the game. In a final attempt to send the game into overtime, Morehead’s 3-pointer bounced off the rim and the Racers took the win 80-77.

“You knew it was going to be a dogfight down to the end,” said Morehead Head Coach Sean Woods. “And that’s what it was. You can consider this one of the best games in OVC history. Especially in tournament time. This was a great basketball game. Two great basketball teams went at it, and one had and one had to lose. Unfortunately, we lost.”

Municipal Auditorium erupted with Murray State’s school song and chant as the team jumped in celebration.

“It just shows that our team has grown a lot,” Payne said. “That our character has grown and we just, for some reason, we know how to win games. It’s just a blessing to our team.”

They shook hands and embraced the Eagles before heading to the locker room as Belmont and Eastern Kentucky University took the floor to warm up. The Racers will face the winner of that matchup tomorrow, March 7 at 6 p.m. in the same venue for the OVC Tournament Championship title.

“We’ve been waiting a whole year to get this opportunity back,” Payne said. “We seized the opportunity and now we’re moving forward.”

Story by Mallory Tucker, Sports Editor