Maybe that’s when they finally felt it was safe.
Jacksonville State gave the 15th-ranked Racers as hard a fight as anyone this season — their coach said so — but in the end, they lived up to their national ranking and pulled away for a 66-55 win that only got that way late.
The Gamecocks (6-13, 1-5 OVC) had never won in this building and were 18-point underdogs going in on this icy night, but they didn’t make it easy for the Racers (17-0, 5-0). Every time the home team seemed in position to pull away, the Gamecocks brought it back.
“The key was to control the tempo of the game,” guard Ronnie Boggs said. “Basketball is a game of runs and if they made a run, we just had to keep our heads on and make a run right back … keep the game close, don’t let it slip away.”
But it did get away, in a decisive three-minute stretch late in the game.
That run spoiled what could have been a national story with the Gamecocks in the headline.
Instead, Murray tied a school record with its 17th straight victory, set the mark for its best-ever season start and remained one of only three undefeated teams in the country (No. 1 Syracuse, No. 4 Baylor). It was the Racers’ 15th straight home win and extended their all-time record over JSU to 16-0.
There are many within the OVC who believe the Racers are capable of going the rest of the regular season without losing.
The Gamecocks limited Murray to 41 percent shooting and held Racers guard Isaiah Canaan, the OVC’s second-leading scorer, to 10 points — almost nine points below his season average — and 0-for-4 from 3-point range. They set out to hold down Canaan, the NCAA’s No. 2 3-point shooter and national leader in 3s per game, and in what coach James Green said may be the first time in his JSU tenure they wanted to do something like that and pulled it off.
Donte Poole picked up the Racers’ scoring slack, leading all scorers with 21 points. Brian Williams led JSU with 18 points. Boggs had 13 (on 5 of 5 shooting from the field) and Mason Leggett had 12.
“It definitely wasn’t another effort (against his team),” first-year Racers coach Steve Prohm said. “I thought that was one of the better defensive efforts against us, but I was expecting that. When you talk to other teams about (JSU’s) program, the one thing they said is they play extremely hard. I thought it was a very good defensive effort on their part.”
What hurt the Gamecocks, then, were foul trouble and turnovers — and a three-minute stretch late in the second half.
The Gamecocks had 10 more fouls than Murray and were charged with 20 turnovers. The Racers made the most of their chances at the line, going 24 of 35 to the Gamecocks’ 13 of 22; Poole was 12 of 14 himself. The foul trouble really impacted JSU’s inside presence, limiting Nick Cook and Tarvin Gaines to 13 and 7 minutes, respectively. Gaines, the Gamecocks’ second-leading scorer, was held scoreless for the third game in a row.
Murray also scored 25 points off JSU’s miscues. Early in the game, the Racers led 17-9 and had scored 12 of their points off JSU turnovers. But the Gamecocks came back and trailed only 25-23 at the half.
“You can’t turn the ball over 20 times against a really good team when you have trouble scoring and expect to have a chance to win at the end,” Green said.
The decisive point part of the game came between the 7- and 4-minute marks of the second half.
The Gamecocks had cut their deficit to 50-46 with 7:04 left, then Murray went on an 11-2 run to take its biggest lead of the game. Zay Jackson scored the Racers’ last six points in the run (of his 10), punctuated by a 3-pointer that made it 61-48 with 4:11 to play.
“Murray State did exactly what they needed to do in order to kind of break the game open,” Green said. “Our plan was to use as much clock as we possibly could and I thought in that stretch they started to make some plays. … They’ve got to figure out a way to win games like this game and I thought they did that tonight.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.