Here’s the funny thing about basketball: SEMO won the first 27 minutes of this game. They lost the next 5 minutes…and never recovered. Isaiah Canaan hit 4 threes in the first 10 minutes of the second half, helping Murray State erase a double-digit 2nd half deficit in a hurry, as the Racers survived another OVC test to move to 22-0 on the year.
Cannan’s third 3 that half was one of those special moments teams have only once every few years. After hitting it, Canaan pulled off his best Michael Jordan impression, staring down the basket, as SEMO called a timeout. It has to be the loudest I’ve ever heard the CFSB Center, and seemed to be the moment that marked the end of any threat SEMO would pose to the Racers. But this was far from a perfect game. The Racers struggled defensively in the first half, allowing SEMO to shoot better than 51% from the floor. It looked like early in the second half, it wasn’t going to get any better, leaving me wondering on Twitter if the Racers needed to go…zone. (As a note for non-Racers fans: they don’t go zone. Almost never. I think they did once under Kennedy.) They didn’t, and much to my amazement, held SEMO to just 2 points over an 8 and a half minute stretch.
SEMO has a lot to hold their head up about, and look forward to the rematch in Cape Girardeau later this month. The Redhawks dominated the paint, limited turnovers, and frustrated Murray’s starters through much of the first half. What they couldn’t do was hit big shots, especially from 3, not surprising given their best 3-point shooter, Nick Niemczyk is still out after suffering a concussion 2 weeks ago. In the first half, they cut off almost every run the Racers made before it could really get going. When Murray State finally made that inevitable run in the second half, the Redhawks looked shaken. They started turning over the basketball. They made their worst shot selections of the night. When it started going wrong, it turned bad in a hurry. Murray State missed some open 3’s after getting about a 9-point lead, and that finally seemed to calm the Redhawks down. If the Racers didn’t miss those shots, I think the final would have been much, much worse.
Redhawks Foul Trouble: The calls were tight tonight, but they seemed to hurt the Redhawks for than the Racers, and a big reason is coach’s decisions. When Ed Daniel got his second foul early in the first half, he sat the rest of the half. Even as the Racers were getting destroyed in the paint, Daniel continued to sit, playing just 3 1st half minutes. On the other hand, both Marland Smith and Tyler Stone picked up 2 first half fouls and were put back in the game. Stone picked up his 3rd before halftime. Powell would join those two in foul trouble, picking up 2 quick fouls during Murray State’s 2nd half rally. In all, the Redhawks sent a good free throw shooting Racers team to the line for 35 free throw shots. They hit 27. (77%)
Which team has the better frontcourt?: The Redhawks have been called by many (myself included) as the best frontcourt in the OVC, but they were outrebounded tonight by Murray by 9, giving up 18 offensive rebounds to the Racers. Ivan Aska, in his 2nd game back from injury, led all players with 11 rebounds. But rebounding was much more of a team effort for the Racers, who had 6 players pull down at least 3 rebounds. SEMO’s rebounding was almost all from just 4 players, Stone, Powell, Marcus Brister (who led the Redhawks with 8 ) and Michael Porter. All this being said, the Redhawks made the most of their 12 offensive rebounds, scoring 19 second chance points.
Should Corey Wilford replace Nutt as a starter until Niemczyk returns?: This may be a moot point if Niemczyk returns soon, but Wilford finished with 15 points, most of which came during SEMO’s early first half run. But he shot just 5-14 from the field, but was the only Redhawks player to hit a 3. Niemczyk is a much better option, but Wilford at least gives the Redhawks the option of the long ball if Niemczyk needs to miss any more games, which appears likely. Redhawks head coach Dickie Nutt says Niemczyk is still questionable for Saturday, as he still is suffering symptoms from his concussion.
SEMO’s Ball Control surprises: I sat the over/under for turnovers in my First Word this morning at 21. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The Redhawks turned the ball over just 10 times in the game, and it was Murray State the more sloppy ball-handling team (although we’ve seen that in spurts this season. Head coach Dickie Nutt said after the game that ball control was one of the areas he feels his team has improved in. I couldn’t agree more.
Are the Racers a “live by the 3” type of team?: I’ve gone down this road before, but we saw it again tonight: when the Racers can’t hit the 3-point shot, they struggle. When they can, they thrive. While that’s almost the textbook definition of a “live by the 3” team, this team also scored 16 second chance points, and 11 points on fast break, both of which we’ve seen the Racers excel in all season. Very few teams will win games without making at least a few three points shots, but there are times I think the Racers go 3-hunting. Can they win a game if they only hit 2 or 3 deep balls? Probably so, because they have good talent in the paint, and their guards, especially Canaan and Jewuan Long, can drive the basketball. That being said, I’m not sure if we’ll see them have to win that type of game, as well as the Racers have shot the 3 this year.
We’ve seen other OVC teams play Murray State tight. What makes this different? The teams we’ve really seen give Murray State a run did so almost solely on one side of the basketball: defense. Although they didn’t do it for 40 minutes, the Redhawks showed they can not only slow down the Racers, but that they’re capable of putting up points when they need it. Jacksonville State and Morehead State, especially, can’t make that claim, and it’s why they both loss. SEMO went to a 5-minute collapse before pulling themselves back together. If they can avoid that in Cape, they should have a chance to knock off the Racers. But there’s a difference between having a “chance” and actually pulling it off.
The Racers should give lessons in handling the media, and humility in general: One of the funny things since more and more national media is coming around is how, for one, the same questions are getting asked over and over again, especially about handling the pressure of being undefeated, and if the Racers are looking ahead to this game or that game. And every time, their answers are consistent, and on the money. We’re focused on the next game. We’re focused on winning the OVC. And that’s it. Where many schools are pulling their kids off of Twitter, and limiting exposure to hopefully prevent them saying anything wrong, the Racers players and coaches handle the media as well as you could. At one point tonight, Canaan was asked about trending on Twitter, which he did tonight, and gave an honest and humble answer. He was then promptly asked about it again. “It has to be fun right?” Of course it’s fun. But Canann, like the rest of this team, are truly humble enough to not boast about it. They haven’t all season, and I severely doubt they’re going to start now.
Quote of the Night: “I never know where I’m shooting from. I just know that if I’m shooting it, I think I can make it.” – Isaiah Canaan.
2nd Place: “I get $200 for every one I leave.” -Steve Prohm, joking about not calling timeouts when his team is down.