Jenny Rohl/The News
Point guard Cam Payne looks to score in the win over Evansville Wednesday.
Head Coach Steve Prohm had a big smile on his face after his team earned its first victory of the season against a Division I opponent Wednesday night, defeating Evansville 65-63.
The Purple Aces of Evansville gave the Racers a tough fight down to the final whistle, but the struggling Murray State team righted the ship defensively and was able to hang on to a slim lead in the game’s final seconds.
“We played the way Murray State plays on defense and that gave us a chance to win,” senior guard Dexter Fields said. “We were just relentless on both ends of the floor for 40 minutes.”
The Racers got out to a hot start and built a 16-5 lead in the game’s first seven minutes. Evansville struck back with the help of the nation’s fifth leading scorer – sophomore guard D.J. Balentine.
Jeffery Moss was tasked with the job of containing Balentine for most of the night, and held the sophomore to just six first-half points.
“Jeff was locked in,” Prohm said. “He shot it well. He played with confidence and he made big plays.”
With the half winding down, Dexter Fields hit a 3 as time expired to send Murray State into the locker room with a 30-26 lead.
Evansville refused to go down quietly, however, storming back to retake the lead just two minutes into the second half.
Both teams fought tirelessly throughout the remainder of the game, exchanging leads seven times.
With the score tied at 61 with 51 seconds to play, Moss took a pass from Fields and drained a three to seal the deal.
Missed free throws by Moss and Fairell down the stretch kept it interesting until the end, but Evansville freshman Blake Simmons’ off-balance 3 missed the mark as time expired and the Racers escaped with their third victory of the season.
It’s a huge confidence booster for us,” Moss said. “We just went out and executed the game plan and played hard and we got the win.”
The 3-5 Racers now have some momentum behind them and have much to look forward to on the horizon.
Sophomore forward Zay Henderson could return Dec. 17 against Southern Illinois after fracturing his hand in a practice following the season opener at Valparaiso.
Additionally, junior guard T.J. Sapp, who is sitting out this semester after transferring from Clemson in January, is eligible to make his debut against Southern Illinois.
The addition of both players will significantly help the Racers, who have been competing with only eight scholarship players since Henderson’s injury.
The Racers now look forward to continuing the current home stand as Lipscomb visits the CFSB Center Saturday.
The Racers and Bison played a season ago in Nashville, Tenn., on Lipscomb’s home floor. The Racers were able to overcome a 5-point deficit to pull away at the end and win 88-79.
This game will mark the third meeting between the two teams.
The Racers are then off the entire week of finals before finishing the home stand with a visit from Southern Illinois.
Over Winter Break, the Racers will be hard at work. After the string of home games finishes, Murray State faces a tough road trip to Western Kentucky and Dayton to finish the nonconference portion of the season.
After the trip to Dayton, OVC play begins as Southeast Missouri State visits the CFSB Center Jan. 2 for the conference opener.
The Redhawks were picked as co-favorites with Murray State to win the western division of the conference.
From there, Murray State will take on UT Martin and Eastern Kentucky before welcoming arch-rival Austin Peay to the CFSB Center the Saturday before classes start back for the spring semester.
Prohm, however, isn’t thinking that far ahead. After an important victory over Evansville, he is excited to finally have his team seemingly back on track.
“Now they’ve got a gleam in their eyes,” Prohm said. “I told them at the end of the game that we need to prepare to win. That’s got to be our mentality.”
Murray State and Lipscomb tip off at 3 p.m. Saturday in the CFSB Center.
Story by Jonathan Ferris, Staff writer