Story by Blake Sandlin, Assistant Sports Editor
If you traveled to watch Murray State’s basketball game against UT Martin expecting an offensive showcase, you likely left disappointed.
But for any shortage of offense Saturday night, there was plenty of defense. Enough, in fact, that the Racers were able to steal a 66-53 road victory against the Skyhawks and extend their winning streak to five.
The 11-point score discrepancy in the final box wasn’t an accurate indicator for what transpired Saturday night in Martin, Tennessee. It was a dog fight most of the night, with both teams struggling to score throughout.
Both teams managed to score relatively effectively in the first half, with the Skyhawks barely edging out the Racers in field goal percentage 52.6 percent to 46.4. However, Murray State held a slim 35-33 lead over UT Martin at the half.
The second half tested the resilience and patience of both teams. There appeared to be a lid covering the basket for the majority of the second half, as Murray State shot just 29.6 percent from the field and 21.4 percent from three. UT Martin shot 26.7 percent from the field and 10.5 percent from three on 2-of-19 shooting.
Scoring droughts plagued both teams all night, but ultimately it was Murray State who connected on the final blow to cement the win. The Racers held the Skyhawks to their final field goal with 9:41 remaining in the game, and strung together 12-straight stops in the final 7:20 to end the game on a 12-0 run and cement a crucial victory to remain in second place in the OVC standings.
Murray State Head Coach Matt McMahon commended the play of his team in the second half that led to the win.
“I thought we fought like crazy,” McMahon said. “Really defended in the second half. Obviously we shot 29 percent from the floor and managed to win a game in the second half, and I thought it was just our toughness at the defensive end. I thought we were able to force some tough shots.”
The Racers improved to 10-2 in conference play – one game behind Belmont – and 18-5 overall. UT Martin fell to 8-17 (3-9).
Despite their offensive woes, the Racers actually managed to have four players finish in double figures. Freshman guard Ja Morant ended with 18 points while accumulating a respectable stat line in the process. He flirted with a triple-double by adding nine rebounds and five assists. Senior guard Jonathan Stark followed closely with 17 points, while junior guard Shaq Buchanan and senior forward Terrell Miller added 10.
But it was the team’s work on the defensive end, Miller said, that was paramount in the Racers sealing the win.
“Our defense stepped up to get 12-straight stops at the end of the game. That really helped us win. Our defense has to be there at all times, even when our offense isn’t there. Matt [McMahon] tells us we can score the ball, but our defense has to be there at all times. It showed tonight and our defense won this game.”
Saturday’s game marked a tremendous milestone for Stark. Early in the first half, Stark dialed up a three-pointer to mark his 2,000th career point. Stark played his first two years of college basketball at Tulane University, and has played the past two seasons at Murray State.
Stark will have a chance to extend his point total when his team welcomes Austin Peay to the CFSB Center next week. The game will tip at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 8, in Murray, Kentucky. It will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network.