It wasn’t nearly as competitive as many expected, but No. 16 Murray State had a chance to shine on the national stage and they seized the opportunity.
Behind a strong 23-point performance from All-American candidate Isaiah Canaan, the Racers took control of the game from the opening tip and took down No. 21 St. Mary’s, 65-51.
In front of a packed house in Murray, Ky., the favorites to win the Ohio Valley Conference showed why they find themselves with a 26-1 record, shooting 9-of-17 from three-point range and holding St. Mary’s to 38% shooting from the field.
The Racers used their balance of a transition game, where they thrive, and their outside shooting, led by Canaan, to never trail on Saturday evening.
Early on, it looked like the Gaels had found a way to neutralize Canaan, who had just one basket through the first 15 minutes and six points at the half.
Then the Canaan that had dominated to this point in the season emerged, scoring 17 of his 23 points in the second half, igniting the Murray State offense and punctuating the effort with an alley-oop to Brandon Garrett that made the crowd erupt with 9:22 to play.
On the defensive end, Steve Prohm’s team was able to hold a normally sharp-shooting St. Mary’s team to 2-of-14 shooting from long distance. Guard Matthew Dellavedova, playing with an injured ankle, was the only Gael able to manage a double-figure scoring night, going for 17 points on 6-of-13 shooting.
If this win did nothing else for Murray State, it should show that they are an NCAA Tournament team, whether that comes by way of an OVC Tournament championship, or an at-large bid.
Already with wins over Memphis, Southern Miss, and Dayton in the non-conference, Saturday’s win over St. Mary’s makes for a solid resumé, assuming they lose out on an automatic bid and need to make their case to the selection committee.
And they answered one other question, at least for now: that haunting intangible, “pressure,” didn’t seem to be a problem.
Many attributed Murray State’s first loss, at the hands of Tennessee State, to this “pressure,” the kind that builds with increasing national attention and the label of “last unbeaten.” Critics point to the Racers’ three turnovers in the final 11 seconds as proof.
Correct or not about the situation against Tennessee State, that same force was not at work on Saturday night.
Consider the circumstances, finding themselves on national television in a showcase game, then consider the results, a dominating performance with 58% shooting from the field.
For anyone who was ready to question one of the core pillars of Murray State after their first loss, it may be time to reconsider.
Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_