Tennessee State guard Jacquan Nobles could only grin.
It didn’t seem like the moment to flash a smile, especially since it came right after his 3-pointer went halfway down before coming right back up. It would have been a pivotal basket that would have cut a deficit to one point with less than a minute to play. Instead, defending Ohio Valley Conference champ Murray State hung on for a 74-65 victory at the Gentry Center on Thursday night.
It has been that sort of eight-day stretch for Nobles and the Tigers.
A week ago, they were atop the league standings with Austin Peay. Now, after three straight losses, Tennessee State (10-12, 7-5) is alone in fifth place.
“We just aren’t quite there to take it to the next step,” coach John Cooper said. “I’m amazed at everyone still [about the OVC title talk]. It is nine games in. It is 12 games in. You don’t win conferences in the first nine games. You have to do it over the course of the season.”
The fact that the Tigers were atop the conference standings at the mid-point of OVC play was a surprise to many outside of Tennessee State.
The Tigers have just eight scholarship players available after Cooper kicked four off the team late last season due to disciplinary reasons. Because of that, they have no seniors on this year’s team. Three Division I transfers are waiting to take the court but have to sit out this year due to transfer rules.
So by all accounts, Tennessee State’s big push was supposed to be in the next two seasons.
The 2010-11 Tigers have marched on, though. They won four straight through the middle of January before last week’s loss to Tennessee Tech knocked them out of first.
The Tigers have relied on eight players during most games, including Thursday’s. Four of five starters played 30 minutes or more and seven players played at least 19 minutes.
Still, the Tigers stayed with Murray State (16-6, 8-3), a team that last year upset Vanderbilt in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The game was close until midway through the second half, when the Racers grabbed a 65-53 lead. It would have been as good of a time as any for Tennessee State to wither but it didn’t. The Tigers put on a full-court press, caused Murray State to turn the ball over and trimmed the lead to 69-65 on a Nobles’ 3-pointer with 1:36 left.
With 17 points from Kenny Moore, 14 from Robert Covington and 13 from Patrick Miller, TSU did enough to throw a scare into the Racers, who had won six straight over the Tigers by an average of 20 points.
“They’re better,” Murray State’s fifth-year coach Billy Kennedy said of TSU. “John Cooper has done a great job of bringing in good kids who hang in there. I just think the character of their team is a lot better than it has been than in the past. I think that is one reason why they have been more consistent with their play. They were physical. They were trapping everything. They came out to win. They were playing to win, not to just hang in there.”
That is still the goal for the Tigers, despite the recent woes.
Six conference games remain before the OVC tournament, which will be held from March 2-5 in Nashville at Municipal Auditorium. Four of those remaining contests are against teams that are in the lower half of the conference standings. So the opportunity to make a final push is there.
“It is a big gut check,” Moore said. “We just have to come out focused. We just got to man up and get through it. These are tough losses but we just have to fight back from it.”
Cooper believes the TSU program can and will eventually make that next step — whether it is this season or not.
“We’re resilient. We’ll be fine no matter what happens through the course of this,” Cooper said. “One of the things we have always talked about is we are in unchartered waters. Forget all the other stuff, let’s just talk about a winning season. We have not had one [in 15 years]. ... My deal is I want our team to get better, to play the game the right way, to grow and to mature.
"If you look back to last year, if you would have told me at this time we’d be sitting here at 7-5 I don’t know if I would have believed it. We had a steep, steep hill to climb here and there is a lot that goes into it.”