How does one talk about perfection?
How about when two teams finish perfect conference seasons…on the same day, in the same gym?
When we all, coaches and media members, met in October, no one was talking about going 16-0. UT Martin women’s head coach Kevin McMillan was telling everyone he wasn’t sure if his team would win any games at all, while Murray State men’s head coach Steve Prohm was “wondering” why everyone thought he had the team to beat.
Both of those interviews (and yes, I still have the recordings) are almost laughable now. What happened on Saturday was historic. It was exciting — not just the wins, but the atmosphere and pageantry inside a packed Elam Center. It was equal parts entertaining and tense, joyous and frustrating, even inspiring for some.
But no matter what words I throw at it, I can’t help but feel I just can’t quite give it justice.
Maybe it’s because it’s not final; Both teams have reached a peak. Neither have reached their ultimate goal.
Saturday wasn’t a culmination of a well-played season, it was a milestone — a pair on Murray State’s end. UT Martin’s women did something they didn’t do when they had the league’s two all-time top scorers. Murray State added another page to their storied history, and broke a record, their own record, one that everyone expected to hold for years, or even decades, when it came to an end just three seasons ago.
It’s an amazing feat. One…that needs to be quickly forgotten, before it can be remembered. UT Martin and Murray State just climbed Pike’s Peak.
Now they must try to scale Everest.
That’s not to minimize what they have done to get to this point. Only nine teams before them, in men’s and women’s basketball combined, had scaled the first mountain, and more than not did it before it became the 16-game marathon it is now.
Both overcame adversity. Both found ways to win despite being behind in the final minute of games. Both overcame November.
But their history hasn’t yet been etched in stone.
Both teams have reasons to aspire for so much more, and their ability to continue in that quest is dependent on four days in Nashville. For UT Martin, they must win three games, starting off with a dangerous eight-seed that almost ended their climb just a week ago. Murray is playing a waiting game, with three opponents who all narrowly missed at least one chance to end the Racers streak this season already.
Even making it to the NCAA Tournament is another milestone. Murray doesn’t want to be a one-and-done, they want their name alongside the great mid-majors of the basketball world. UT Martin wants to get what they couldn’t for two of the most talented women to ever play in the conference — an NCAA Tournament win.
What’s been done is amazing. It’s memorable and worth celebrating for years to come.
…starting in April. Once the book on this year is closed, and the final flags planted upon mountain peaks. Once history is truly written, then it can, and will be celebrated.
For now, there’s still work to do. The next ascent begins in just two days.
McMillan is not a fan of the new women’s OVC Tournament: I actually haven’t got to speak to McMillan since OVC Media Day, due to our paths just not crossing this year, so after their win, I asked him about preparing for the new tournament format.
He wanted to talk about the tournament. Just not in the way I expected…
“I don’t like the format, I don’t think it’s right,” he said. “Does it change how we prepare? No, I think we pray that we can win and rest, because you have a grueling schedule now to win it. What do you get for being the one or the two seed? Well, you get to play a day early and be there a day longer. That’s a reward? You get to be out of your bed longer. I don’t agree with it. I don’t think it’s right. I don’t think it’s what the conference should be doing.”
“But here’s the thing,” he added. “I can sit here and say that and everyone think that it’s because I’m the one seed. If I would have been the eight seed, or if I would not have been in it, I would have said the same thing, because the idea is, like the men, you want the best team representing you in the [NCAA] Tournament. And we have changed our format not to do that. But, you’ve got to win what’s set up in front of you, and that’s win three games. If we don’t, we don’t deserve to go on.”
“I don’t know if you asked that question, but that’s what I answered,” McMillan quipped at the end.
How much does momentum matter heading into Nashville? Before Eastern Kentucky upset the top two seeds in the OVC Tournament a year ago, they had won four straight going into Nashville. When Belmont won it the year before, they had won four straight games heading into Nashville. Murray State the year before won five straight, and had just one loss on the year.
Which makes this interesting to note: Outside of Murray State, the longest winning streak heading into the OVC Tournament is four games, held by Belmont. EKU and Morehead have won three straight. SEMO won their last game, while UT Martin, SIUE, and EIU enter the tournament off a loss.
C’Mon Commish: Sigh…So, two teams going for 16-0 yesterday, and where was the commissioner? Nashville.
I don’t often criticize the conference — I truly think they do what they feel is best for the conference as a whole, and they really have an unenviable job. Keeping 12 fan bases happy is…it’s impossible, trust me on that. And there are reasons for her to be in Nashville: The OVC is getting ready for a tournament, after all, which is incredibly challenging, and the CBS Sports Network was in Nashville for Belmont vs Tennessee State.
But — how often are teams going for 16-0? How often are two teams going for 16-0 in the same gym? The answer to that second one — ONCE. EVER.
Is it the end of the world? Absolutely not. It is a slight against either team — not openly, no. She didn’t not attend because it was Murray State and UT Martin. And I’m not sure what she would have done if she was in Martin, other than congratulate the coaches on their seasons.
I still feel like she should have been there. And I’m not the only one.
Loos will return: Before Austin Peay’s season finale on Saturday against Southeast Missouri, Austin Peay athletic director Derek van der Merwe announced that head coach Dave Loos will return for his 26th season with the Governors. From what we understand, no contract extension was given, meaning this is Loos’ final year under the current contract, which has to make one wonder…
Not enough to ask Loos about it, mind you. Did that once.
Cameron Payne is your OVC player of the year, but it’s close: The announcement will officially come tomorrow, and I’m pretty confident in feeling that Payne will earn OVC POY honors, but it might not be a landslide. Corey Walden has had an amazing year for Eastern Kentucky, and statistically has solid numbers. But Payne edges Walden in points per game, while dishing out two more assists a contest and has a higher assist-to-turnover ratio, in addition to leading a team to 16-0 versus EKU’s 11-5 OVC campaign. I think it goes to the sophomore.
Murray State’s draw: Every Monday morning during the season, Jeff Bidwell tries to ruin my week by making me get up before nine a.m. to talk about the weekend that was in the OVC. (I kid, I kid.) Today, I went on a bit of a rant. The question that was proposed to me was — does Murray State want to see UT Martin on Friday in Nashville? I’m completely standing by my rant: who do they want? Every team in the field presents a challenge to Murray State. Sure, the Skyhawks have played the Racers close twice, and absolutely do present a challenge, but so does SEMO, who probably should have beaten Murray in Cape Girardeau earlier this season. The Morehead game, which feels like it was played three seasons ago now, was a grind; EIU and SIUE held Murray to their two lowest shooting percentages on the season in one of their matchups, and playing Belmont is like rolling the dice on how many three’s they’re going to make on that day. To Murray fans, I present the following:
You’ve beaten every team in the conference. Six of them twice. The draw is great. Any draw is great.
Okay, rant over.