NASHVILLE, Tenn. – So much for any rust or looking ahead by the 12th-ranked Murray State Racers.
Donte Poole scored 25 points, and Murray State routed Tennessee Tech 78-58 Friday night in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament semifinals despite a five-day layoff after the end of the regular season.
"The one question everybody asked us was our guys focus going to be the same as it's been all year because we have an at-large bid supposedly, and I think we proved to everybody that our focus was going to be at a high level tonight," Murray State coach Steve Prohm said.
Now the Racers (29-1) will play Tennessee State, a 59-52 winner over Morehead State, on Saturday trying to add a 15th overall tournament title to their regular season title. They last won the tournament title in 2010 when they went 31-5 and beat Vanderbilt in the NCAA tournament.
Murray State junior Isaiah Canaan, who added 18 points, said another tournament title is what they've prepared for all year.
"We knew, and we know, what we've got to do to get to the ultimate goal, which is winning the all-out conference championship," Canaan said. "So we just had to keep continue doing the things we've been doing all season and everything else is going to work out on its own. We just decided to listen to our coaches and keep playing hard and everything will work out on its own."
The Racers beat Tennessee Tech 69-64 to wrap up the regular season on Feb. 25. They showed fresh legs and no rust while beating the Golden Eagles for the third time this season in a nice payback after losing in the semifinals to Tennessee Tech a year ago.
Tennessee Tech coach Steve Payne said there was no shame in losing to Murray State.
"They're good," Payne said. "Their record is what it is, and they are ranked what they are ranked for a reason. And did I think we could beat them? Yeah. I think we could, thought we would. But I give them a lot of credit. I mean I don't know how you can look at them and say they are not a great basketball team."
With a win Saturday, the Racers would lock up their second automatic berth in three seasons as the tournament champ.
Poole said the Racers weren't thinking of last year's semifinal loss and simply focused on shutting down Tennessee Tech. That they did, holding the Golden Eagles well below their 74.8-point per game average.
"We just don't want it to end," Poole said. "Everything has to end at some point. We just want to take it as long as we can. We didn't want to come in here and just be in here to be here. Our goal here was to win the championship while we're here. We want to win at least every single game we can and take this as long as we can get it."
Ed Daniel also had 11 for the Racers.
Kevin Murphy led Tennessee Tech (19-13) with 31 points, and he became the 16th OVC player with 2,000 career points in finishing with 2,012.
"We came out and fought hard," Murphy said. "I think we could have done a little more. Murray, they're a good team. We tried our best."
The Racers outshot Tennessee Tech all over the floor, hitting 54.9 percent (28 of 51) overall compared to 39.3 percent (22 of 56). They also were just faster all night too. They outscored Tennessee Tech 19-4 off the fastbreak and had a 42-20 edge in the paint.
Murphy, the 12th-best scorer in Division I with 20.7 points per game, finally got going after missing his first two shots for Tennessee Tech. He hit a jumper with 10:25 left, and he scored 17 points to help the Golden Eagles pare the lead down to 37-30 by halftime.
Canaan helped answer each time. Once Tennessee Tech guard Zach Bailey hit two free throws with 12.1 seconds left after being fouled by Canaan, the Murray State junior finished the half with a running jumper just before halftime.
Murray State, one of only three Division I teams with only one loss this season, started opening the gap back up in the second half.
Daniels had three dunks on the Racers' first five buckets, the third with 16:09 left for a 48-36 lead, and the Racers just kept padding the lead from there. Poole scored seven straight points for Murray State to push the lead to 62-43 midway through the half.
The Racers led by 21 in the final minutes, and even Poole had a rare dunk late off an assist from Daniel, who then smiled.
"When you're winning, you always have that smile on your face," Poole said.
Murphy didn't get much help from Jud Dillard. Together, the two ranked third in Division I averaging a combined 38.6 points per game. Dillard managed only two points in the first half with two personal fouls, and he picked up his third 3 minutes into the second half. Dillard finished with eight points.