When you’ve won 23 Ohio Valley Conference championships entering this year, you’ve won in just about every way possible. Murray State has won on the season’s final day, (2010-11) won six back-to-back titles, (1993-99) clinched with weeks to go, (2011-12) and set the record for most conference wins in a single season. (2005-06 / 2009-10)
Yet, the way they won their 24th on Saturday is one that fans will be talking about years from now.
It’s how the Racers came back from 10 down, and won despite never leading, not once, in the second half. It’s how Murray State shot their worst percentage from three-point range since the streak began, yet still scored 94 points. It’s how T.J. Sapp stepped to the line in the final seconds of regulation, and drained three free-throws in a similarly eery situation to what cost Murray State a share of the conference title a year ago. It’s how the Racers sophomore sensation, Cameron Payne, was reduced to a cheerleader with his team down late, how three starters fouled out before the end of overtime, how Tyler Rambo hit the most pressure-packed free-throws of his career, and how Wayne Langston‘s sixth steal of the season helped seal the most unlikely of wins.
It’s how Southeast Missouri, the team that spoiled the Racers party almost one year ago — up 10, scored on nine of the final 11 possessions of regulation. And lost.
…and it’s how the streak, now 21 games strong, stayed alive.
In so many ways, Murray State had no business winning Saturday in Cape Girardeau. Southeast Missouri not only countered every Racers run, they one-upped it: Antonious Cleveland‘s monster slam in the first half, back-to-back-to-back three’s from their senior leader, Jarekious Bradley. The Redhawks didn’t turn over the ball, they shot 50% from the field, hit their free-throws — a sore point all season long — and defended the Racers about as well as could be expected. But after 45 minutes of basketball, the Racers would be the one’s celebrating in front of their fans in the Show Me Center.
We can argue about fouls — both in the 54 called, and the one a head coach thinks wasn’t — we can discuss whether technical fouls should still be given for dunking in pregame in 2015. We can debate whether SEMO should have fouled up three, or whether playing for a second overtime was really the right call for the Redhawks. Every close game has moments that one fanbase or the other thinks should have gone the other way.
But I can’t help but think what we witnessed Saturday was the birth of a new rivalry.
Rivals aren’t really born these days. Most teams have rivals from days of old, passed down through generations of fans, and while we know we don’t really like that other team, we couldn’t really tell you why. Murray State knew heading into Saturday why they didn’t like Southeast Missouri, thanks to what happened a season ago. And without a doubt, Southeast Missouri knows why they don’t like Murray State.
Both teams on Saturday played like a team that wanted nothing more than to win that game. SEMO didn’t “lose” anything on Saturday other than another game — they weren’t playing for a title, not even really a conference bye — it was just their 7th conference loss, but their players entered the postgame post conference with their heads hung, one player so distraught he barely realized a question was being asked to him. That loss hurt.
There’s no question how Murray felt after the game. From the excitement on the court, to the locker room, to the smile across Sapp’s face when we said the words “OVC Champions,” in a post game interview: there’s no question Murray State wanted to win that game, and it wouldn’t have been the same if they wrapped it up Saturday.
…against their rivals, Austin Peay.
“You appreciate them more when you’ve let a few slip through your fingers.”
The Racers-Redhawks rivalry might be short-lived — new ‘rivalries’ often are. But if not — we’re witnessing it’s roots: the games that matter, the games that make fanbases despise one another, and brings out the best in the players on the floor.
This game isn’t just one the Racers will remember. The Redhawks will too.
Who’s up for round three this time next year?
The ‘race’ for eighth: The top eight aren’t locked up, but they could be really soon. Both SEMO and SIUE hold two-game leads over TTU / JSU, and both swept the Golden Eagles and Gamecocks. Both the teams from the East can still make the OVC Tournament if they win out, and either SEMO or SIUE lose out, (making matters worse: they play each other, so one is guaranteed a seventh win) but that’s it — there’s no tie scenario, two or three-way that puts either team in at this point.
TSU is eliminated — even if they win out, they lost to both SEMO and SIUE, meaning they would lose a one-on-one tiebreaker against either. (Again, they play, so both SEMO and SIUE can’t lose out) What if there’s some weird two or three-way tie with TTU or JSU? SEMO or SIUE would get the bid, because they’ve swept all three.
Austin Peay is still eligible, but things aren’t much better for them, although there is a path. If Austin Peay wins out, which is required at this point, they’ll beat both SEMO and SIUE, putting them 1-1 against both. Assuming either SEMO or SIUE loses out, AP would get the eight seed because, as part of winning out, they’d beat the one seed Murray State. That’s only if, though, there’s isn’t a three-way tie involving JSU or TTU, since Austin Peay lost to both. That would put either SEMO / SIUE in. A three-way tie involving Tennessee State would put the Governors in, though. If, somehow, there was a four-way tie at 6-10, it wouldn’t end in the Governors favor.
In short — the odds are the OVC Tournament field will be set before the final week of the regular season.
The EKU – Murray State comparison: I’m not comparing EKU to this year’s Murray State team, rather the 2003-04 Racers. That season featured the last team to go undefeated in conference play: Austin Peay, who went 16-0. They lost in the OVC Tournament finals to Murray State — a team who had won 12 of their last 13, the lone loss being that Austin Peay team.
EKU hasn’t lost since they’ve played Murray, and are playing their best basketball of the season. If they win this week against the Bruins, they’ll all but wrap up the East Division, and the two-seed in the OVC Tournament.
Is a repeat of history in the making?
One major difference: that Murray State team was 14-2 in conference play that year. EKU has a few more losses than that…
RPI Update: We haven’t looked at RPI in a long time — so here’s the latest rundown. Not a lot of change, to be honest, although only a pair of team are in the 300’s:
- Murray State (69th)
- Eastern Kentucky (149th)
- Belmont (152nd)
- Eastern Illinois (168th)
- UT Martin (169th)
- Morehead State (227th)
- Southeast Missouri (264th)
- Tennessee Tech (274th)
- SIUE (293rd)
- Jacksonville State (299th)
- Austin Peay (320th)
- Tennessee State (343rd)
Maybe — MAYBE, EKU or Belmont would escape the clutches of a 16-seed if they made the tournament, although it would require a few low-major upsets. Murray State is still looking at that 11-12 range, assuming they win out, according to most mainstream predictions.
Snow Day: With much of the Ohio Valley looking like the Antarctic this week, at least one game is already a casualty. EKU won’t host Austin Peay on Tuesday. Instead, that game will be played next Monday. (February 23rd)