A loss won’t cost Murray State an Ohio Valley Conference championship. A win won’t improve Tennessee State’s seeding in the upcoming conference tournament.
To say nothing is riding on Thursday’s matchup between the league’s top two teams would be a mistake, though.
“Does this game mean something? Yeah,” TSU coach John Cooper said. “I think they all mean something because the goal is to win.”
Murray (26-1, 13-1), ranked 14th nationally, locked up the OVC regular-season title last week but the Racers come into the Gentry Center (7 p.m., ESPNU) in search of revenge. TSU gave them their only loss two weeks ago.
“I feel like they still got the game in their head,” Tigers guard Patrick Miller said. “They are going to come [out] aggressive. But we’re prepared.”
The Tigers (19-10, 11-4) are trying to keep a good thing going. With the No. 2 seed and byes through the first two rounds secured, TSU wants to come out of its regular-season finale with momentum. They’ve won nine straight and are one win away from their first 20-win season in 33 years.
And, of course, there is an intangible.
“It is definitely pride,” forward Robert Covington said. “We just have to go into the game with the mindset that we got to defend, rebound, take great shots and limit our turnovers. Once we stick to those principles it is very hard to beat us.”
The Tigers haven’t lost since Jan. 16, matching their longest winning streak since the 1994-95 season. They are also tied with Belmont and Montana for the seventh longest streak in Division I.
They haven’t manhandled many opponents during the stretch but have found ways to win. Twice they’ve needed overtime and seven of the games have been decided by fewer than 10 points. In snapping an eight-game losing streak to Murray State, they rallied from a 13-point second-half deficit and overcame 31 points and seven 3-pointers from Racers point guard Isaiah Canaan.
For TSU, Covington leads the charge. Consistent throughout his career, the junior has scored in double figures in every game except the season opener. The 6-foot-9, 204-pounder ranks fourth in the OVC in scoring (17.9 ppg) and second in rebounding (7.9 rpg).
In addition, they are riding the hot shooting of guards Miller and Kellen Thornton. Miller, a 6-foot sophomore, is averaging 9.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.6 assists in the last nine games. Thornton, a 6-foot-7 transfer from Illinois State, has averaged 12.1 points and 4.7 rebounds during the stretch.
On defense, the Tigers have held opponents to 62.7 points a game.
“I don’t know if you ever know if it is going to click,” said Cooper, who is in his third season at TSU. “But I thought we had the potential of having a good team and having a good solid season. ... My hope was that we would be successful this year. My hope was that we would have the first winning season in a long time [16 years]. I guess I had a good hope.”
Besides recognizing their two seniors — Whites Creek product Wil Peters and forward Kenny Moore — the Tigers hope to fill up the 10,500-seat arena for the first time this season. That would add an edge to their homecourt advantage.
Over the last two seasons, TSU is 22-3 at the Gentry Center and is riding an 11-game winning streak at home.
By Monday, TSU had sold all 5,000 of its reserved tickets and had a limited amount of general admission tickets remaining. The Tigers, who average 2,773 fans at home games this year, are expecting a near sellout.
Just more proof that it is not just another game.
“It has been a long time ... that the game is relevant,” Cooper said. “Not just from the team’s point of view but from the fanbase point of view. It is really a nice thing and fun thing for our guys. This is something different. As you get better, hopefully this won’t be the last [sellout.]”