The 2011-12 basketball season was one that will be remembered for years to come, not only for Murray State fans, but fans across the Ohio Valley Conference. The last remaining undefeated team filled seats across the conference, as the Racers climbed into the top 10 in the AP poll.
It was no different on February 9th. The CFSB Center was filled to capacity; In a first for Murray fans, many couldn’t even get tickets to the game, as few if any seats were empty on the cool winter night.
The Racers had been in their fair share of dogfights as of late. Missing Ivan Aska to a hand injury for six games, the Racers struggled on their way to wins over Morehead State and Tennessee Tech. Even lowly UT Martin gave the Racers a fight just five nights before.
So the fact that Murray State was up seven at the half on Tennessee State proved to be a pleasant surprise. With 15:26 to go, the lead had ballooned to ten. The under-12 timeout came and went, the lead still double-digits.
As the final buzzer sounded, there was a team celebrating on the court. Behind them, the scoreboard read, simply 72-68.
But it wasn’t the Racers celebrating win number 24. Instead Tennessee State was celebrating win number 1. Their first ever win over a top-10 program. On the road, in hostile conditions, down 13 in the second half, the Tigers did what no other team would do during the regular season.
The Tigers had beaten Murray State.
Tennessee State has played basketball in the Ohio Valley Conference since becoming a member in 1986, making this past season their 25th year in the conference. Despite some early success, the Tigers had fallen on hard times as of late: No winning seasons since ’95-’96, not a single 20-win season since ’78-79.
But things were looking up for Tigers fans heading into the ’11-12 season. Tennessee State was returning the bulk of a team that went 10-8 in the OVC, and head coach John Cooper was in his 3rd year at the helm.
At OVC Media Day, I sat down with a very enthusiastic Cooper, who balked when I called his team one of the most experienced in the conference. Sure, the roster wasn’t filled with juniors and seniors, but it was filled with talented players coming off a solid year, and a great run in February and March the year before. Listening to him talk, it felt like he was lowering the expectations for his team.
20 games into the season, the Tigers were just 10-10. Despite 30 points and 15 rebounds from Robert Covington, the Tigers were coming off a loss on the road at Austin Peay. That loss dropped the Tigers to 3-4 in the conference, and it appeared that Cooper’s caution before the season might have been warranted.
“If you look at the conference, the only team that consistently winning on the road right now is Murray,” Cooper said after the loss. “But we’ve got to pop our heads up, go on the road and beat a good team.”
All four of TSU losses in OVC play to that point were on the road. When the Tigers traveled to Eastern Illinois three days after the loss to the Governors, it had been more than month since TSU had won on the road.
Although Eastern Illinois was far from a good team, Tennessee State finally got their first win on the road. A week later, Tennessee State made it two in a row, winning at UT Martin, another not very good team. The Tigers, who to this point had lost as home just once all season, followed the road wins with a two-game homestand, beating EKU and Austin Peay squads who had gotten the better of the Tigers on the road earlier in the season. Momentum was building, but one of their bigger challenges of the conference season was ahead.
The Tigers were heading to SEMO with 2nd place in the conference on the line. And just five days after, heading to play the undefeated Racers.
In what would prove to be foreshadowing, the Tigers overcame an eight point deficit on the road, taking over second place in the OVC. Covington put up a game-high 23 points in the win, his 24th straight game scoring in double digits. With five straight wins under their belt, the Tigers set their eyes on the undefeated Racers.
7-0 Murray State in the first two minutes. Two early turnovers for Tennessee State, and Jewuan Long had already hit a rare three point shot.
Tennessee State responds, but the Racers just keep hitting threes. 14-7, not even eight minutes in. Five turnovers for TSU early.
The Tigers respond, and we’ve got a ball game in Murray. Back to back steals by Peters, and the Tigers now up five on the road.
Wow, that didn’t last long. Racers with an 8-2 run, back on top by 4.
Huge three by Covington, and we’re tied at 33, less than 2 minutes to play in the half.
Racers close the half on a 7-0 run. Big momentum swing for Murray State, up 40-33 at the break.
“One of the topics Tigers head coach John Cooper spoke about in the post game news conference was respect,” I wrote after the game. There was little question Tennessee State was a contender in the OVC, but they were one of many teams that year living in the long shadow of Murray State. “Despite the fact that Tennessee State has been on a roll as of late,” I added, “you could argue they haven’t gotten the attention they probably should have. Wins like this will have schools noticing the Tigers more. Now, the question is what do they do with it.”
What they did with it is keep winning. Three more wins, before it was the Tigers turn to host a revenge-minded Murray State squad. In front of more than 10,000 in attendance, Tennessee State couldn’t repeat the feat, falling by 18. A third matchup at the OVC tournament was anything but an automatic, but if seeds held, matchup number three would be for an OVC Title.
8-2 run to start the second half for Murray State, the lead now 13.
11:40 to go, Racers lead still double digits after putback by Mushatt.
Covington with another three, and the lead down to 7 at the under 12 media timeout.
Kenny Moore gets the steal and the wide open layup. Lead down to three. Racers need to stop the bleeding.
Kellen Thorton hits the jumper, and Tennessee State has erased a 13-point deficit. Timeout, Murray State 7:17 left to play in the first.
After the first loss all season, trying to sum up what this meant for Murray State was a challenge to say the lest “Racers head coach Steve Prohm has been quoted as saying there’s no point in losing,” I wrote “but I actually somewhat disagree with that statement. Losing can, at least it should, motivate you to get better.”
No one would ever admit it, but watching the team all season, it was clear pressure was getting the better of them. Each game, the team made more mistakes, and they had gone from blowing out good opponents to scraping past lesser ones. Pressure was as much as what was wrong with the Racers as anything, this much I was convinced.
“Prohm did say in post game that many were going to question what they should have done by the stretch,” I added, “and I’m going to be one of those people, because it needs to be questioned.”
Maybe that was his way of saying the pressure got to them.
Flagrant foul called on Daniel. Racers coming apart at the seams. Fourth foul on Daniel, Racers down one.
Peters make the Racers pay. Tennessee State up four off of the Canaan turnover.
Another turnover by Canaan, and Tennessee State takes a time out with a two point lead. Going down to the wire.
Mushatt with the rebound, passes out to Canaan. Hits it, and one. FT is good, and the Racers back within one with :41 to go.
Tennessee State turns it over with 11 seconds to play. Murray State with the ball, down just one.
And it’s stolen on the inbounds. Miller gets the steal, and calls a timeout in the corner.
He misses them both. Murray still alive. 7 seconds to go, with the ball.
…and another turnover by Canaan. How has Prohm not called a timeout during this mess.
Both FT’s good, and the Racers with another chance. Down 3, two seconds to go.
Another turnover, and that will just about do it.
Final in Murray: Tennessee State 72, Murray State 68. The undefeated season is over for the Racers.
Tennessee State nearly did the impossible twice, and they might have if not for a Jewuan Long layup with four seconds to go in the OVC title game. The season ended shortly after that for the Tigers, a first round loss to Mercer in the CIT invitational.
The 20-win season was nice. But it was win number 16 that was by far the nicest.