NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Somewhere, a bubble team can breathe a little easier for the NCAA tournament thanks to the 12th-ranked Murray State Racers.
Jewuan Long drove the baseline for a layup with 4.4 seconds left, and Murray State rallied from seven points down in the final 5:28 to beat Tennessee State 54-52 for the Ohio Valley Conference tournament championship Saturday and the automatic NCAA tournament berth.
Had Tennessee State won it, the Racers would have probably received an at-large bid, bursting another team’s tournament bubble.
The Racers just considered this comeback a final tuneup for the NCAA tournament in their first trip back since finishing the 2010 season 31-5 and beating Vanderbilt in the first round. Senior guard Donte Poole said the finish just shows how focused the Racers are as they held Tennessee State without a point in the final 3:45.
“Down the stretch, we were down we just tried to put a number of stops together to give ourselves the best chance to come down and get a shot,” Poole said.
The final shot didn’t go off as planned. Isaiah Canaan was supposed to take the shot, but the Tigers smothered him so he passed off to Long for the floater. Tennessee State coach John Cooper thought M.J. Rhett got his feet set to draw a charge on Long with no call.
Long finished with six points.
“I got a lot of confidence in him,” Murray State coach Steve Prohm said. “He hadn’t made a lot of shots all night, but that’s his shot. You ask any of these guys. … His shot’s the floater.”
Canaan then stripped Tigers guard Patrick Miller of the ball driving to the basket, and Long guarded Robert Covington on his 3-pointer at the buzzer to preserve the win, getting the Racers to 30-1 and avoiding a second loss to the only team to beat them this season.
Covington said he could’ve taken a better shot but didn’t realize where he was at the time.
“I seen it fade left, and after that, I mean, just put my head down,” Covington said.
Prohm said the finish shows just how resilient his Racers are and congratulated the Tigers.
“They had a great game plan today,” Prohm said. “Slow you down in the offensive end. They really made it tough on us on the offensive end, and they made us work for everything so congratulations to them.”
Covington led Tennessee State (20-12) with 14 points, and Kellen Thornton had 11. These Tigers were 9-23 in Cooper’s first season three years ago.
“Murray State did everything they needed to do down the stretch of the game,” Cooper said. “Maybe didn’t play their best game of the year, but they made plays down the stretch when they needed to make plays. That’s what good teams do. Hats off to them and hats off to everything they’ve been able to accomplish.”
Canaan and Poole each scored 14 points for the Racers.
Fittingly, because the Tigers are the only team to beat Murray State, this game couldn’t have been much tighter with 10 ties and 11 lead changes. Murray State led 29-27 at halftime, then came out and looked early as if it was trying to help the OVC put two teams into the NCAA tournament.
Most of the fans at Municipal Auditorium dressed in Racers’ blue and yellow, but the Racers were sloppy as they started the second half missing their first six shots. They didn’t hit their first field goal until 14:27 was left on a 3 by Long. That was part of a 12-2 run as the Racers rallied from a 38-31 deficit, and Jackson’s layup put the Racers up 43-40 with 8:28 left. Tennessee State answered with 10 straight points to go back up 50-43 on Rhett’s jumper with 5:28 left.
That set up a furious finish.
Tennessee State last led 52-48 when M.J. Rhett dunked with 3:46 left for its final bucket. Ivan Aska answered, then Ed Daniel hit two free throws with 1:01 left for his only points of the game tying it up.
Miller had another turnover with 30 seconds left for Tennessee State. That allowed the Racers to run out most of the rest of the game before Canaan found Long in the left corner. Long drove the baseline and scored, giving him six points for the game.
Cooper said Miller was his best driver, while Covington was his best jump shooter.
“We come up 0 for 2. We’ll live with that,” Cooper said.
Tennessee State twice led by seven in the second half. The Racers came back each time.
The Tigers outshot Murray State 46.8 percent (22 of 47) compared to 37.5 percent (18 of 48). They also outrebounded Murray 34-24. But the Racers scored 15 points off Tennessee State’s 18 turnovers and had a big edge at the free throw line, hitting 14 of 16 while the Tigers hit 5 of 10.