"Reality leaves a lot to the imagination." - John Lennon
Game #9-222: Valparaiso Crusaders at Murray State RacersDecember 29, 2012 3:00 pm
MURRAY, Ky. - Thinking that a Murray State-Valparaiso game may warrant some attention, I tried to grab a ticket before leaving on my journey/vacation last week.
I couldn't find a great way to order them online, so I called the Murray State ticket office, but got a recording from a woman in a nearly perfect southern accent.
"Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the Murray State Ticket Office. Due to the holiday, the Ticket Office will be open on December 17th and 18th, but will then be closed until January 2nd. The Racers will play Valparaiso on December 29th. Tip-off is at 2 p.m. with doors opening at 12:30. Thank you and Merry Christmas."
Bloody brilliant. And I mean that in the most flattering way possible.
I pictured one woman sitting in a small room with a computer running the entire ticketing, maybe attached to the Campus Ministry or something as I had seen with St. Francis in Brooklyn earlier in the season. For Murray State to overcome such meager facilities and an extremely remote location to become a mid-major powerhouse
was a fantastic tale, a bunch of local guys doing well and bucking the system.
But reality and the best account that a feature journalist can give you do not always have a direct correlation. For someone that wants to write about basketball below the Red Line, I had to go to Murray State, even if I had to drive all the way from Connecticut to do it.
That part about Murray, Kentucky being remote? That part is definitely true. From Nashville, Interstate 24 ventures north into the Bluegrass State, and the quickest route to Murray spits you out on Rte. 68 in a little town called Cadiz. From there it's a 40-mile journey through some of the most isolated roads I've been on since I was covering small-town sports in Texas a decade ago.
Eventually (through a steady snow on this afternoon), you end up at the Land Between the Lakes National Recreational Area
, crossing two lakes on two-lane bridges that were built in the Depression. One was hit by a cargo ship just last January
and was closed for four months.
You finally reach Rte. 641, hang a left, and a couple of miles later, at the top of a hill, a massive structure appears in the distance. Like the Pyramids or a hulking megachurch, Murray State and the CFSB Arena dominates the horizon.
Hmmm, I thought, this was no small gym, was it? I got a quick meal at Backyard Burgers across the street and headed on in.
I don't know why I had an image in my head of a tiny barn, I had to have seen Murray State play at home, or at least highlights of them. After all, this $25 million arena that opened nearly 15 years ago now. But my reality was shattered when the ticket I got at the door put me near the top of a 9,000-seat stadium.
Which is not to say that everything was terrible. The place was beautiful, fans streamed in an hour before tipoff, and the band - even over break - was probably the best I've heard this season (including playing Call to the Post
for the Racers before the lineups were announced). That's what we want in a college basketball program, even here in the Mid-majority. It just wasn't what I was expecting to see in little old Murray, Kentucky.
A couple other facts struck me as I looked at the game program. Murray State's enrollment is more than 10,000, it is far from a tiny school. And the Racers' roster, like many "national" programs - like their opponent on this afternoon, Valparaiso - was from all over the South. Star Isaiah Canaan is from Mississippi, and the rest of the starters came from Birmingham, Orlando, South Carolina, and Phoenix. Steve Prohm (with some help from others before him) has built a program that is no longer a stranger to even casual observers of college basketball.
Perhaps the only thing separating Murray State from the recent conference realignment lottery is its location. I gained a new affection for the Ohio Valley Conference on this trip, it makes geographic sense with small-town schools like Morehead State, Austin Peay, and Tennessee Tech all along highways I drove through at one point or another. Hopefully, they will never change. But they probably will.
Valparaiso, with Butler bolting to the Atlantic-10 (and beyond), would love to take over their former role of king in the Horizon League, and played the role of party pooper on Saturday in Murray.
I mean, let's no go nuts, here, probably 98 percent of the eyes in the state of Kentucky were tuned to Louisville and the battle between defending national champion Kentucky and Louisville. Even in the parking lot in Murray, some inanimate objects were torn.
Just as the narrative of little Murray State didn't exactly ring true, neither did the supposed narrative for the game. It started to, the Racers led by double digits within four minutes and looked to be ready to pull away, even at the midway point of the first half.
But the Crusaders, even dealing with fairly significant foul trouble, kept battling. Big men Ryan Broekhoff and Kevin Van Wijk not only dominated the boards, but ran the floor extremely well. A layup in transition, followed by a #superhoop, and then a fast-break dunk gave Broekhoff seven points in less than a minute and put the Crusaders in front for the first time, 22-21, late in the first half. Murray State found itself, and Canaan sparked a run that put the Racers up 31-28 at the break and appeared to give them the momentum to resume the beatdown that had started the proceedings.
(I met some Valpo fans at the half, certainly not an easy trip from northern Indiana to here.)
The Racers got the lead as big as six and Ed Daniel's dunk with 7:37 left gave them a 54-49 lead, but it was Broekhoff again with a big #superhoop. Five straight points from Ben Boggs (who only finished with seven) went unanswered and the crowd was stunned as the Crusaders had made it 10 straight for a five-point lead of their own.
For a team that I expected to be confident, Murray State looked very uncomfortable and undisciplined for much of the second half. You could see Canaan's talent, but it was yet another case of the stats not telling everything, as he finished with 24 points and six assists, but rushed a few shots and did not have a great defensive game.
Murray would huff and puff but Valpo would keep the lead the rest of the way in a 66-64 upset (remember, last year Murray State won its first 23 games before losing and rarely loses at home).
The Racers open OVC play this week and should be able to win most of the games on sheer talent alone, but the Crusaders exposed some holes both on defense and in the interior, getting 15 offensive rebounds in winning the battle of the boards, 42-26. As always, though, we have to be careful not to read too much into just one contest in a long season, even for Valparaiso.
It was on to the next game (isn't it always), but as I walked out with the still slightly stunned crowd, I stopped to take one last look at the massive arena and the surrounding campus. When I set out to do this for Mid-majority, I wanted to make sure that I tried as hard as possible not to make it provincial, both for myself and for the readers.
I set an ambitious plan to make it to Murray, Kentucky for a game between two teams that were some of the best the Mid-majority had to offer both in talent and in tradition. And there I was.
Yes, the arena was a little bigger than I expected, and it didn't quite fit my preconception of a small-town basketball team making good in the middle of nowhere.
But come the third Sunday in March at about 6:30 p.m. EDT, there's a decent chance that one or both of these teams' names will be read by Greg Gumbel on CBS. And a few days later, God willing, they will vanquish a higher-seeded foe, and the nation will collectively celebrate for a few fleeting moments.
There will be nothing imaginary about that.
VALPARAISO 66, at MURRAY STATE 64
VALPARAISO 10-4 (0-0) -- R. Broekhoff 6-12 3-4 18; L. Dority 3-14 1-2 8; B. Boggs 1-4 4-4 7; K. Van Wijk 4-8 0-0 8; M. Kenney 2-2 0-0 4; E. Buggs 2-3 0-2 4; B. Capobianco 3-4 1-1 7; J. Coleman 3-6 3-5 10; W. Bogan 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 24-54 12-18 66.
MURRAY STATE 9-3 (0-0) -- I. Canaan 8-21 5-7 24; D. Fields 4-6 0-0 12; S. Wilson 2-10 0-1 6; E. Daniel 6-9 2-3 14; B. Garrett 1-3 0-0 2; J. Moss 0-1 2-2 2; T. Gilmore 1-1 1-1 3; C. Ford 0-1 1-2 1; Z. Henderson 0-0 0-0 0; E. McCree 0-1 0-0 0; T. Rambo 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 22-53 11-16 64.
Three-point goals: VALP 6-16 (W. Bogan 0-1; J. Coleman 1-1; B. Boggs 1-4; R. Broekhoff 3-6; L. Dority 1-4), MURR 9-23 (I. Canaan 3-9; D. Fields 4-6; S. Wilson 2-7; E. McCree 0-1); Rebounds: VALP 38 (K. Van Wijk 9), MURR 25 (S. Wilson 7); Assists: VALP 10 (M. Kenney 4), MURR 10 (I. Canaan 6); Total Fouls -- VALP 19, MURR 18; Fouled Out: VALP-K. Van Wijk; MURR-None.