|Jewuan Long cuts down the net, celebrating the Racers' Ohio Valley Conference title. (US Presswire)|
MURRAY, Ky. -- Steve Prohm walked to midcourt, grabbed the microphone, thanked the fans and announced that he wanted to honor Murray State's seniors. Again. So out walked Jewuan Long, Ivan Aska and Donte Poole. Again. And nobody seemed to care that we'd already done this a few minutes before tipoff.
Then the players' parents were summoned.
Then a message from former coach Billy Kennedy was delivered.
Then a montage played in two corners of the CFSB Center.
Then the Racers cut down the nets.
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"We just wanted to keep it going," Prohm told me about 45 minutes after the final buzzer. And, honestly, who could blame him? They do not, after all, get nights like this around places like this too often. The spotlight is always elsewhere. But on this Saturday, the spotlight was here. Even Dick Vitale was here. So the diehard fans -- as well as the bandwagon jumpers -- of this off-the-radar school from this often-dismissed league woke up determined to soak up every moment of this unusual occurrence, and the majority of the capacity crowd of 8,825 hung around for all the festivities following No. 16 Murray State's 65-51 victory over No. 21 Saint Mary's.
"It's a special day," Aska said. "We showed everybody we can hang with a very good team."
No, Ivan, that's not what you did. What you did is show everybody you can work a very good team, overwhelm a very good team, hold a very good team that just might snap Gonzaga's string of West Coast Conference championships to 37.7 percent shooting and cruise to an easy victory that should simplify the NCAA tournament selection committee's job. Because no matter what happens going forward, Murray State will be in the field of 68. And though that might seem like an obvious statement considering the Racers spent part of the season ranked in the top 10 and are still ranked in the top 20 with 26 victories against just one defeat, rest assured there would've been a debate about Murray State's at-large candidacy had the Racers lost this game and again in the OVC tournament.
But forget that now.
And count Randy Bennett among the believers.
"They're a team with great guards who shoot the ball really well, and their inside guys are better than people think," said the Saint Mary's coach. "They don't have a lot of holes."
Which is true.
Murray State doesn't feature future lottery picks like Connecticut, a frontcourt like Kentucky or the depth of Syracuse. But to focus on that is to miss the larger picture and ignore that the Racers have a roster full of experienced winners and a point guard in Isaiah Canaan who's making a strong push for first-team All-American honors. The 6-foot junior who entered averaging 19.2 points per game while shooting 47.3 percent from 3-point range got 23 points against Saint Mary's while making 5-of-8 3-point attempts. Afterward, Rick Cleveland, longtime sports columnist at the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, presented a fair question.
"How did Biloxi's Isaiah Canaan get out of Mississippi without a Division I offer from a Mississippi school?" Cleveland tweeted. So I walked down to the court, stood in front of Canaan and asked him that exact question. "They slept on me," Canaan said with a smile. "A lot of teams slept on me. ... And now I'm sure all the teams that slept on me are regretting it, but I've never regretted coming here."
And why would he?
Canaan is the main reason this twice-celebrated senior class is now the winningest group of players in school history, the main reason Murray State has won three straight OVC titles, and the main reason the CFSB Center closed the regular season with six consecutive sellouts. Those things are already done. What comes next is anybody's guess, but in a season where pretty much everybody except Kentucky and Syracuse seem vulnerable, why not dream big?
A Sweet 16?
A Final Four?
Almost anything seems reasonable on a night like this. At least four national media outlets sent writers here to see the Racers in person, and a national audience tuned in to watch one of the sport's best stories perform on a stage that rarely presents itself to OVC schools. And the Racers performed well. Then they celebrated appropriately. Then Prohm summarized things perfectly as giddy and proud fans still lingered a good hour after the game ended.
"We've got a lot more basketball to play," he said. "But I think we showed the national audience how good we are."