NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Murray State was going to the NCAA tournament whether or not it won the Ohio Valley Conference tournament.
But the damage it would have done to its reputation this season, and more importantly its seeding in the field of 68, ensured the Racers were in it to win it Saturday.
Murray rallied from a 38-31 deficit with 14:47 to play, slipping past No. 2 seed Tennessee State 54-52 in the waning seconds on a driving layup by senior Jewuan Long. The victory gave the Racers (30-1, 15-1 OVC) the OVC’s automatic bid and their 15th overall NCAA trip, including five in the past 10 years.
It also in all likelihood saved them from a matchup in which they would have been the lower-seeded team. Now, who knows?
If anyone asks first-year Murray coach Steve Prohm for his team’s résumé, he’s only too happy to rattle it off.
“If you look at our body of work, you can make an argument for a 2,” Prohm said. “If you really factor in the numbers … our nonconference RPI is a 2. We haven’t lost a road game all season, they factor that in. We haven’t lost a neutral-site game all season. We have three top-35 RPI wins. We have like five or six top-100 wins or top-125 wins. When you factor all that into the equation then look at the fact we’re 30-1, you have to sit back and say, ‘Wow.’
“We’re not just 30-1 by mistake. Now do I think we’re going to get a 2-seed? Probably not. But 4, 5 or 6 if I’m a betting man. The tournament is about matchups. I just want proximity -- Nashville, Louisville, somewhere where our fans can come and support our guys.”
Nashville, a second- and third-round NCAA site, has been kind to the Racers. Not only did they win the OVC tournament here at Municipal Auditorium this weekend, but they also won at Tennessee State, 80-62 on Feb. 23, to avenge their only loss. The Tigers (20-12, 11-5) stunned the Racers in Murray on Feb. 9, winning 72-68.
“People were giving us all type of heck for losing to them,” Prohm said. “They won 20 games. They’re a top-125 RPI team.”
TSU was seeking just the third NCAA bid in school history and first since 1994, and it looked like it just might get it.
“They came out ready to play,” Long said. “They wanted to beat us just as badly as we wanted to beat them.
“We just kept fighting. We want to do it on the defensive end. They say defense wins championships, and we just thrive on that.”
Murray held TSU to just two points in the final 5:31.
If only Prohm had heard TSU coach John Cooper tout what his team has done this season. He no doubt would have been happy to sing the praises of the only team to hang a loss on his record.
“I told them in the locker room, ‘It’s the first time you’ve won 20 games since 1979,’” Cooper said. “It’s the first team to beat an SEC opponent [64-63 at South Carolina on Nov. 20]. First team to beat a team ranked in the top 10 in our history [Murray was No. 7 when TSU won].”
Cooper said he expects Murray to be seeded anywhere from fifth to seventh.
“Maybe they didn’t play their best game of the year today, but they made plays down the stretch,” Cooper said. “That’s what good teams do. Hats off to them. I’m happy that they’re representing our conference because they’re a very good team. I think they’ll show what OVC basketball is all about. I have nothing but respect for their program, their fans, their support. How they do it is top, top, top-notch.”
Prohm said he would allow his players to spend a couple hours in the Music City with their families before they boarded the bus to drive back to Murray, a little more than two hours away.
“I’ll give them Sunday and Monday off,” Prohm said. “Let them get away from it totally. Then I’ll figure it out [what Murray will do with its time off until it plays again]. I don’t have any idea, to be honest. I’ll call a couple of people and talk to them about how they’ve handled it.”
So far Prohm and his senior-laden team have handled just about everything well this season. Next up will be how to handle being the first OVC team to play its first-round NCAA tournament game as the higher-seeded team.