Murray State found itself in unfamiliar territory Wednesday night.
Not because they found themselves in a close, highly contested match against visiting Eastern Kentucky — that has practically become the norm inside the rivalry — but because of the way they got there.
A stagnant offense, a lack of focus and the inability to knock down open shots hurt the undefeated Racers Wednesday night against the Colonels, first-year head coach Steve Prohm said.
Still, somehow, without the services of All-OVC big-man Ivan Aska, Murray State (15-0, 3-0) clung to what was earlier a 15-point lead, defeating Eastern Kentucky (9-7, 3-1) 76-67 in front of a crowd of 5,852.
“We lost focus there down the stretch a little bit,” Prohm said. “I talked to the guys at halftime, I told them Eastern wasn’t a team that would beat themselves, that we would have to beat them.”
The Racers struggled in the early going, falling behind 9-4 to Eastern Kentucky early in the first half.
As they’ve done so often over their recent stretch of games, however, the Racers responded quickly with a run of their own, outscoring the Colonels steadily for a five-minute period in the first half, extending the lead to as many as 15 points with 1:52 left in the half.
Late in the frame, however, Prohm said he saw something from Eastern Kentucky that was enough concern for him to address a potential comeback once the Racers got to the locker room.
“We were up 15 points there, and then they got some quick baskets and we weren’t executing on the offensive end,” Prohm said. “When they were able to cut the lead to just 11 at halftime, I thought that was big for them and I knew they were going to make a run.”
The Colonels lived up to Prohm’s prophecy to near perfection, eliminating an 11-point halftime deficit, cutting the lead to within two points late in the second quarter.
After shooting 64 percent from the field in the first half, the Racers shot just 32 percent in the second.
That, coupled with effective execution on the offensive end from Eastern Kentucky, kept the Colonels’ foot in the door.
Leading 49-35 with 15:41 left to play, the Racers watched as Eastern Kentucky went on a 17-5 run, cutting the lead to 54-42 with 6:25 left.
Perhaps the key play inside the Colonels run happened at the 9:47 mark, with Murray State clinging to a 52-44 lead.
Eastern Kentucky point guard Mike DiNunno hit a layup to cut the lead to six, then after a Donte Poole layup on the other end, senior guard Jewuan Long picked up a ticky-tack personal foul, eventually leading to a technical foul.
The duo of Eastern Kentucky guards D’Mitri Riggs and Jaron Jones knocked down all four free throws, to bring the game to within two.
From there, both squads would exchange blows over the next three minutes, and the Racers were finally able to get out of their offensive funk with just over two minutes left to play, just in time to hold on for the win.
Newcomer Stacy Wilson, who posted his second-consecutive double-digit performance in his Murray State career, said the team simply got ahead of itself late.
“I just think we just got out of focus,” Wilson said. “We were rushing too much and when we slowed it down and got the ball moving things got easy.”
Wilson was the fourth Racer in double-figures on the night, finishing with 13.
Poole led the way for Murray State with 22, while leading scorer Isaiah Canaan and junior forward Ed Daniel added 16 each.
Canaan joined the 1,000 point club with a three-pointer early in the first half, while Daniel was big offensively in place of Aska.
Junior transfer Latreze Mushatt, who replaced Aska in the starting lineup Wednesday night, finished the night with only two points, but pulled down a career-best 10 rebounds in the win.
Prohm said the loss of Aska was apparent in some aspects of the game, and said his team will have a lot to focus on moving forward now to Saturday’s rivalry game against Austin Peay.
“I know he will be out this week,” Prohm said. “We will get him re-evaluated on Monday. Right now, we have got to get the swelling all out of his hand.
“We missed him in terms of just having a veteran presence on the floor, but we will have a few days to work on getting the rotation right without him.”
Aska’s absence showed statistically, as a generally small Colonel team out-rebounded the Racers 35-26.
“That’s one stat that really concerned me,” Prohm said. “Getting out-rebounded like that. That’s probably the biggest area we missed Aska tonight.”
After the game, Eastern Kentucky head coach Jeff Neubauer, who said earlier in the week that he felt as if Murray State should be ranked in the top-10, stuck to his words.
“If you have an RPI inside the top 15, and you are undefeated, you are a top-10 basketball team,” Neubauer said. “You have to be. They are very good.”
The Racers trip to Clarskville will tip-off at 7 p.m. Saturday night at the Dunn Center.