Donte Poole was frustrated for a good part of the first half Wednesday night.
Even though his No. 22 ranked Murray State squad was handling its business against an overmatched Tennessee-Martin club for the majority of the early going, the senior guard still wasn’t pleased.
Most of his frustration had to do with UT-Martin head coach James Jones’ gameplan, who had his Skyhawks trapping the Murray State ball handlers off their initial ball screens, something Poole said his Racers weren’t expecting.
“I think it kind of surprised us with their defensive intensity at times,” Poole said “with trapping the ball screens and doing different things that we kind of weren’t prepared for as much as we probably should be on the offensive end.
“But as the game went on, we adjusted.”
Poole’s performance was evidence of that.
Even with the Racers leading Tennessee-Martin 36-16 at halftime, Poole came out with something to prove in the second frame, scoring 12 of his team-high 15 points in just ten minutes of second-half action, leading the Racers to a 78-54 victory, extending their record to 13-0.
Murray State first-year head coach Steve Prohm said getting an Ohio Valley Conference victory was the most important part of Wednesday night.
“We are just excited to be 1-0 in the conference,” Prohm said. “This was a tough game for us to prepare for. First of all, it’s a conference game, then it’s also the Christmas game to where these guys have a foot out the door.
“You have to get them focused and locked in.”
That they were.
Murray State senior forward Ivan Aska scored the game’s first basket, then the Racers had all 5,877 in attendance in awe on the next play, when junior guard Isaiah Canaan found forward Ed Daniel in transition, hitting Daniel with an alley-oop that the athletic big-man hammered home.
Daniel was called for a technical foul after the play, but from that point forward, the tone had already been set.
With the UT-Martin’s primary focus on the defensive end of the floor tailored mainly towards stopping the Murray State guards, Aska and Daniel had a field day in the first six minutes of play.
The duo combined to score 12 of the Racers’ first 14 points, and Aska, who reached double-digits with 12, scored 10 of his points in the opening seven minutes.
“It really did open up for our big guys by them just pressuring,” Aska said. “It really did help us a lot, and I think we just worked on it and saw where they open spots were.
“I’d love for (opponents) to do that all the time.”
Aska and Daniel combined to shoot 9-for-10 from the field, combining for 21 points and eight rebounds.
Aska and Daniel weren’t the only Racers connecting on open shots, however.
Poole went 5-for-6 from the field, while Murray State finished the night 28-for-41 from the field as a team.
Shooting the ball at nearly a 70 percent clip, Prohm said, was thanks in large part to his guards ability to handle the Skyhawk pressure.
“Once we got through their initial pressure, we were able to get easy baskets,” Prohm said. “It’s hard for a team to continue to trap every ball screen on every possession, especially against us because we screen a lot. Getting through that initial trap and getting the ball reversed let us get easy shots.”
While UT-Martin’s plan of keeping Canaan out of the scoring column was obvious from the early going, the junior All-OVC guard found other ways to contribute in the first half, handing out seven assists.
Even though he entered the night averaging 19.3 points per contest and ended with just 10, Prohm said he was pleased with Canaan’s performance, saying the development of his team isn’t requiring Canaan to be the guy every single night.
“One thing I like about our team is that we are developing,” Prohm said. “We are developing into a team that where he doesn’t have to go out and get 20 to 25 points a night. If he can have 10 points, seven assists and six rebounds every night, that’s a good night for him.”
The Racers will now have a few days off before returning to Murray on Dec. 26 in preparation for a Dec. 30 tilt at OVC-foe Eastern Illinois.
The Racers will open the new year on Jan. 4 at home against Eastern Kentucky before traveling to Austin Peay on Jan. 7, completeing a stretch that Prohm called “crucial.”
Prohm concluded his post-game press conference Wednesday by sharing what his team talked about in the hours leading up to their OVC opener against the Skyhawks.
“You have to find somthing, prepare something everyday for your team,” Prohm said. “Today’s focus was pressing towards the goal.”
“This was the first step,” Aska said. “The first step towards the OVC tournament and an OVC Championship.”