Before the Racers faced Marquette yesterday in the third round of the NCAA tournament’s West Region, coach Steve Prohm had spoken so eloquently — almost wistfully — about “visualizing what that moment will be like when you see your 14 guys celebrating going to the Sweet 16.’’
So with 7:39 remaining at the KFC Yum! Center and Murray State holding a five-point lead, its largest of the game, the Racers could taste the nectar they dreamed about taking a bite of in Phoenix later this week.
HOW SWEET IT IS: Marquette’s Jae Crowder celebrates as the Golden Eagles rallied beat Murray State, 62-53, yesterday in Louisville.
Then something went horribly wrong.
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The Racers ran out the fuel that had brought them 31 wins in their first 32 games this season. Murray State couldn’t buy a basket with a fistful of $50 bills and an oversized hoop.
Marquette, the No. 3 seed, outscored Murray State 22-7 the rest of the way and raced to a 62-53 victory to advance to its second consecutive Sweet 16 appearance.
“We’re lucky and thankful to have played the way we did in second half to finish the game,’’ said Marquette coach Buzz Williams, who virtually lost his voice during the game.
Prohm was philosophical about the defeat.
“I told the players in the locker room, I wish I could have figured out a way to get them through the last the last seven minutes,’’ Prohm said. “I’m so sick right now, because I’m reliving the last seven minutes. I’m just sick because it’s over and I thought we had a really, really great opportunity to make a really, really long run in this tournament.
“I thought we belonged. We didn’t win, but I think everybody saw that we belonged.’’
Marquette won with a will-crushing 13-2 run that was capped by a dagger-like 3-pointer from its best player, Jae Crowder (his only trey of the game).
The Crowder 3-pointer elicited loud chants of “MVP! MVP! MVP!’’ from the Golden Eagles faithful, who were vastly outnumbered in the arena by Kentucky fans cheering the locals from Murray State, a little over 200 miles away.
After a baseline drive basket by Jewaun Long to give Murray State the 46-41 lead with 7:39 remaining, the Racers made only two field goals the rest of the game.
Crowder, who right before the killer 3-pointer that gave Marquette a 54-48 lead with 4:04 remaining, had drawn a charge, knew the gravity of the moment, how big his play was.
“I knew we were a couple plays away from closing the game out and I wanted to make the big play to put us in position to win,’’ he said. “I knew at that time it was big.’’
With Murray State having gone frigid offensively, Marquette iced the game by making 7 of 8 free throws in the final 53.4 seconds of the game.
Crowder persevered through a poor first half of shooting to lead the Golden Eagles with 17 points and 13 rebounds. Darius Johnson-Odom also scored 17 for Marquette.
Murray State, usually a strong 3-point shooting team, was miserable from long distance, shooting just 4-of-21. The Racers’ leading scorer, Isaiah Canaan, shot 4-of-17, including 2-of-8 from 3-point range, finishing with 16 points.
“That’s where our points come from, that’s what we’ve relied on all year,’’ said Murray State’s Donte Poole, who shot 3-of-13 overall and was 1-of-9 on 3-pointers. “That’s what we’ve made our living with. We’ve got to live with it or die with it and today we just died with it.’’
Sixth-seeded Murray State, which entered the game as the only one-loss team in the nation, now has a 3-15 all-time record in the NCAA tournament and remains without a Sweet 16 appearance.
Twice before this season, Murray State played in a game to advance to the Sweet 16 but failed. In 1988 as a 14th seed, the Racers lost to eventual national champion Kansas, 61-58. In 2010 as a 14th seed, the Racers were denied by eventual national runner-up Butler, 54-52.
Louisville 59, New Mexico 56
Russ Smith had 17 points as Louisville held off New Mexico in a third-round South Regional for its sixth consecutive win to advance to the regional semifinals for the first time since 2009.
Kyle Kuric added 10 points for the Big East tournament champions, who lost their first game of the NCAA tournament the past two seasons.
Trailing 53-46, New Mexico’s Drew Gordon hit a pair of free throws, and Demetrius Walker made a 3-pointer to pull to within 53-51 with 1:36 left. Smith made a pair of free throws for fourth-seeded Louisville (28-9), but Gordon answered with a tip-in.
Murray State, Murray State, Sweet 16, NCAA tournament, NCAA tournament, Sweet 16, Golden Eagles, Golden Eagles, Jae Crowder, Jae Crowder, Marquette, Steve Prohm, Louisville