Tennessee State experienced a number of firsts this season.
The Tigers defeated an SEC team for the first time. They recorded the program’s first win over a Top 10 team and they accumulated 20 wins for the first time since 1979.
That list won’t include the first NCAA Tournament bid since 1994. But it doesn’t necessarily mean the Tigers are finished playing.
TSU just missed reaching the Big Dance for the third time in school history when it dropped a 54-52 thriller to 12th-ranked Murray State on Saturday in the championship game of the OVC Tournament at Municipal Auditorium.
“Me and my guys we want the opportunity to play,” TSU junior Robert Covington said. “If we get the opportunity we are going to act like it is the NCAA Tournament.”
With the win, the top-seeded Racers (30-1) received the conference’s automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. Tennessee State (20-12), the No. 2 seed which handed Murray its only loss last month, won’t get that experience.
However, coach John Cooper confirmed some of the other three postseason tournaments, including the NIT, have shown interest in inviting TSU. The Tigers never have been to the NIT and have not reached the postseason since 1994 – the second of consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament.
Having won 10 of their last 12 – the only losses coming to Murray State (a RPI of 29) – and with 20 wins, including a road victory over South Carolina, the Tigers believe they have done enough to earn a berth in the NIT’s 32-team field.
So does Murray State coach Steve Prohm.
“I hope so. They are really good. They’re a very good basketball team. They made us work for everything,” Prohm said. “People were giving us all types of heck for losing to them. They’ve won 20 games. They’re a top 125 RPI team (123). And people are like, ‘Man, they lost to Tennessee State.’ They’ve won 20 games.”
TSU nearly picked up win No. 21.
In a back-and-forth game, the Tigers rattled off 10 straight points to stake a 50-43 lead with 5:28 left. But they scored just once the rest of the game, going scoreless over the last 3:46.
Fueled by five straight points from tournament MVP Donte Poole, Murray ended the game on an 11-2 run. Ed Daniel tied it at the 1:01 mark with two free throws. On the next possession, TSU guard Patrick Miller got trapped and threw the ball away, rolling all the way down the floor and out of bounds underneath Murray’s basket with 30 seconds left.
This set up the game-winning basket. As the shot clock wound down, Jewuan Long drove the baseline and leaned in over 6-foot-8 M.J. Rhett for the go-ahead jumper with 4.4 second remaining. Rhett fell to the ground but a whistle didn’t blow.
“I thought it was a charge,” Cooper said in a calm demeanor. “Was it a charge? Probably it is a charge in the first 38 and a half minutes of the game. But you’ll never hear me be the guy. ... I don’t want officials to decide the game. He drove and it was probably a charge earlier in the game. I don’t have a problem with that. It is one play. One play doesn’t beat you in a basketball game. It is the culmination of events that beat you.”
Miller immediately took the ensuing inbounds pass and raced down the court. He got a foot from the rim before the ball was stripped out of bounds by Isaiah Canaan. After officials looked at the tape, 1.1 seconds was put on the clock.
With Long in his face, Covington chucked up a 3-pointer on the right wing. But the ball overshot the rim as the buzzer sounded.
“I saw it fade left and after that I just put my head down,” Covington said.
Covington, TSU’s leading scorer, finished with 14 points but sat on the bench for six minutes in the second half after he picked up his fourth foul at the 14:47 mark. While the 6-foot-9 swingman was out, Murray turned a seven-point deficit into a three-point lead.
Kellen Thornton added 11 points off the bench. Miller had nine points and seven assists but committed three of his four turnovers in the second half (TSU had 18). He joined Covington on the all-tournament team, along with Poole and Canaan, who each had 14 points for Murray.
“Not the end of the world,” Cooper said. “It is just part of life – that’s what I told them. ... If you think about it this group has done a lot of firsts, hopefully they won’t be the last first.”