Murray State (8-0, Great Alaska Shootout Champs) and Western Kentucky (2-6, #TeamReset) have one of those special, local rivalries that rarely disappoints. Tonight's meeting was the 149th meeting between the two schools, a series in which WKU enjoys a healthy 97-52 advantage, even including tonight's loss. But, in my basketball lifetime, it can only be described as an extremely competitive rivalry in which the home team usually prevails. This evening's contest would be a rare exception to that general rule.
For those following hoops in New York City or Philadelphia, "local rivalry" means a short train ride. In the footprint of the Ohio Valley Conference and the Sun Belt, it means "drivable in half a day." Such is the case here, with Murray nestled near the gorgeous Land Between the Lakes area in far western Kentucky (in the tiny town of Murray), and WKU sitting 130 miles to the east in Bowling Green, overlooking the Barren River and the rolling ridges of south central Kentucky. In spring and fall, the three-hour drive over to Murray is gorgeous, but I have made a couple of treacherous trips on snowy, narrow, two-lane roads in the dead of winter to watch the Toppers and Racers do battle on the hardwood. This year, I was afforded the luxury of the two-mile drive to Diddle Arena on the campus of WKU to enjoy the match up.
The pre-game was fairly eventful by married-with-two-kids-standards. First, I successfully made a wonderful pot of chili without chili powder. This required some creativity, as I failed to realize I was out of chili powder until I had already sautéed the onions, garlic, and oil for the base (and used half of a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale to deglaze the pot, which was the true point of no return--no giving up on that chili once that had occurred). The internet offered some suggestions, and I improvised. It worked (if ever you find yourself in this predicament, pile in cumin, garlic powder, coriander, and half a packet of taco seasoning). Further, tonight was the Christmastime "Downtown Lights Up!" event in Bowling Green. So, the pregame also included the wonders of my small children marveling at Christmas lights. It puts a not-quite-up-to-Topper-standards start to the season into perspective.
The game itself was close to what was expected. Murray, the far more experienced and successful team to date this season, opened on a 7-0 run and would make its first five shots. Senior Isaiah Canaan was averaging 20 per coming in and would not harm that average much, leading the way with 18 points. The Racers' savvy play helped them get up 13 more free throws than WKU leading to a +12 advantage in free throws made. That is a massive accomplishment in a road contest and was the primary statistical factor in this Murray State victory.
Overall, the Racers' experience helped a ton, as Murray boasts ten juniors and seniors on the roster while WKU carries ten freshmen and sophomores. The Toppers have five upperclassmen, only three of whom played in this game. The nine new faces on the Topper roster this season combined to play 61% of the minutes tonight, but that number has been as high as 75% this season. And, this young Topper club known as #TeamReset was game in this one. Despite Murray's hot start, WKU led by as many as five in the first half (23-18) before the Racers answered with a massive 28-7 run that bridged halftime to establish a seemingly safe 16 point lead. But, Topper junior guard Jamal Crook scored a bundle in short order on several oily slides to the bucket, and that big Racer lead was whittled to three at one point. But, again, Murray used its experience to calmly draw fouls and make free throws to reassert themselves and build enough cushion to put this one away late. At the start of the year, I did not think this would be a typical "Murray or Morehead or Austin Peay" year in the OVC, but it probably will. Murray is 8-0 with some impressive wins away from home. They have to be considered the favorite at this stage.
The WKU faithful are not accustomed to mediocre seasons and the Tops have languished through two of them before this one. Further, they certainly are not used to 2-6 starts. These freshmen are playing a lot of minutes, playing hard, and playing together, so they will get some time, but the wins will have to start coming at some point to keep the hounds at bay.
MURRAY STATE 70, at WESTERN KENTUCKY 59 12/01/2011
MURRAY STATE 8-0 (0-0) -- I. Canaan 5-10 6-7 18; D. Poole 2-9 5-6 10; I. Aska 6-13 2-2 14; J. Long 1-2 3-4 6; E. Daniel 2-4 4-7 8; L. Mushatt 4-6 0-0 9; S. Wilson 1-3 0-0 2; Z. Jackson 0-2 0-0 0; B. Garrett 1-2 1-1 3. Totals 22-51 21-27 70. WESTERN KENTUCKY 2-6 (0-0) -- D. Gordon 2-5 2-2 6; G. Fant 4-12 0-0 8; J. Crook 9-13 2-5 20; T. Price 1-6 1-2 4; K. Kaspar 1-4 4-4 6; T. Akol 4-9 0-0 8; K. McDonald 1-3 0-0 3; K. Anyigbo 1-1 0-1 2; O. Akamune 0-1 0-0 0; V. Zollo 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 24-56 9-14 59.
Three-point goals: MURR 5-12 (D. Poole 1-5; J. Long 1-1; L. Mushatt 1-2; I. Canaan 2-4), WKU 2-12 (T. Akol 0-1; K. McDonald 1-3; G. Fant 0-1; D. Gordon 0-1; K. Kaspar 0-3; T. Price 1-3); Rebounds: MURR 29 (I. Aska 8), WKU 34 (G. Fant 9); Assists: MURR 9 (J. Long 2), WKU 13 (T. Price 3); Total Fouls -- MURR 20, WKU 25; Fouled Out: MURR-None; WKU-None.