Story by Blake Sandlin, Assistant Sports Editor
It’s been 25 years since Murray State last hosted a power-five opponent. On Tuesday night, in front of 6,478 onlookers, that drought was snapped when the Racers welcomed Auburn University.
Auburn (9-1) posed as one of the most formidable tests the Racers have faced thus far, and Murray State wasn’t able to whether the storm late, falling 81-77.
While Auburn managed to steal a four-point win in the end, the contest was anyone’s game from the jump as both teams traded blows in the non-conference affair. In total, the game saw seven lead changes, with five ties coming in the second half alone.
The Racers stormed out to a 9-0 run in the first half and lead by as much as 10 points, but the Bruce Pearl-led Auburn Tigers countered. They battled back to take a 20-18 lead mid-way through the first half and capped the half off leading 42-36.
However, Murray State didn’t falter under the pressure, as senior guard Murray State put the team on his back to score 14 points in the first six minutes of the second half. Stark’s hot start wasn’t enough overcome a scoring drought and two late three-pointers by sophomore guard Jared Harper, helping them pull away in the final minutes.
Head Coach Matt McMahon commended the sophomore for his timely heroics that helped the Tigers improve their winning streak to eight.
“At the end of the game, it’s a tie game, and you just have to tip your cap to Harper,” McMahon said. “Those were some incredible shots; I don’t know what we could’ve done differently. I thought they were both well defended by Jonathan [Stark] and Ja [Morant], and he stepped up and knocked down a couple of 25-30 footers there.”
Both teams had four players finish in double figures. Murray State senior forward Terrell Miller led all scorers with 24 points while adding a career-high 15 rebounds. Senior guard Jonathan Stark complemented his senior counterpart with 21 points, five rebounds, five assists and five steals. Junior forward Jalen Dupree and junior guard Shaq Buchanan both contributed 10 points in the losing effort.
The Tigers, who are off to their best start since their 1999-2000 season, were led by junior forward Desean Murray who recorded 18 points and nine rebounds. Sophomore guard Jared Harper contributed 17 points, while sophomore guard Mustapha Heron pitched in 16 points to help secure the victory.
In the current climate of NCAA hoops where most power-five coaches are reluctant to schedule away games against proven mid-major opponents like Murray State, Auburn Head Coach Bruce Pearl accepted the challenge to take his team to Murray, Kentucky.
“No one wants to schedule a loss,” Pearl said. “But I looked at scheduling an opportunity. I knew the environment; I knew it was going to be full, but I knew it was going to be classy. I knew it was going to be hot and intense, but if I can’t go on the road and beat Murray State in a close game, how in the world am I going to go to Tennessee and win?”
McMahon acknowledged the challenge of scheduling power-five opponents, and he credited Pearl for making the trek.
“I think games like this are great for college basketball,” McMahon said. “I wish we saw more of them. I think sometimes fans get tired of seeing 10-straight money games at home, so I give coach Pearl credit for going on the road and creating that atmosphere at home. But it’s something we’ve been trying to do. We’ve been trying to get games like this for years.”
Pearl has strong ties to western Kentucky community and the people who comprise it. Scott Edgar, former Murray State head coach, served as Pearl’s assistant coach at the University of Tennessee, and Steve Newton, another former Racer coach, was the athletic director at the University of Southern Indiana.
“I spent nine years at Southern Indiana, USI, right up the road,” Pearl said. “I spent summers on Lake Barkley with my best friend. I spent summers on Lake Barkley with my best friend. I spent summers learning how to Jug fish. We’d come to Paducah and we’d go to Patti’s and have a pork chop. This was a very special place for us.”
Although the Racers suffered the loss on Tuesday and will await their next test at 6 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 22, at the University of Detroit-Mercy, Pearl offered some optimism for the 7-3 Racers who are set to open up conference play later this month.
“Y’all can win the OVC,” Pearl said. “You and Belmont. Maybe Jacksonville State. Not to leave anybody else out, but it’s a good league. But what you all did to us tonight and what Tennessee State almost did to Texas speaks very highly of the OVC.”