COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee Tech coach Steve Payne wants his players to take note of their weaknesses and Murray State's shortcomings, too. He figures these teams will meet again very, very soon.
The Golden Eagles lost 69-64 to the 14th-ranked Racers on Saturday night but still earned a first-round bye in next week's Ohio Valley Conference tournament after a fourth-place finish for the season. If they can win their quarterfinal game, they would meet Murray State in the semifinals on March 2.
"We're going to see them again, I hope, unless they can lose the bye — which I don't think they can," Payne said. "Hopefully we'll play well enough. I think we're certainly capable to win three games (to win the tournament). I've always felt like that."
Murray State (28-1, 15-1) bounced back from its only loss — a 72-68 decision against Tennessee State on Feb. 9 — to finish the season on a four-game winning streak.
They Racers will head into that tournament as the favorites to win the automatic NCAA tournament bid after a season in which they won 28 games, surpassing the 2009-10 team that had 27 regular-season victories and 31 overall. Murray State is one of three Division I teams with just one loss.
"These guys, I have to tell them what's going on from a standpoint of like, 'Hey, you just set the all-time wins record for the regular season. You just went undefeated on the regular season on the road,'" Racers coach Steve Prohm said. "They're competitors, so they're going to be ready to play. They want to try to win a championship."
Tennessee Tech (18-12, 9-7) didn't make it easy. The Golden Eagles led 60-59 with 4:54 to play when Bassey Inameti fouled Isaiah Canaan with the Racers already in the double bonus.
Canaan, who led Murray State with 18 points, hit both free throws, and the Racers followed with four more to take control. Murray State went 16 for 22 at the free-throw line in the second half, and Tennessee Tech was just 1 for 2.
"It's hard to overcome that many attempts at the free-throw line in a close game against a really good team," Payne said. "They're a fantastic team. They're well-coached, they're smart, they play together really good offensively, and I think they're really physical."
Jud Dillard drove the floor and dunked for the Golden Eagles with a minute left to cut the Racers' lead to 65-64, but Tennessee Tech didn't score again.
"It wasn't a pretty game for us, and you're going to have games like that sometimes, but that shows our character," Murray State guard Jewuan Long said. "Through the bad times, we find a way to get the job done. We've been doing it all season long. That just shows how tough we are."
Kevin Murphy led Tennessee Tech with 26 points, going 7 of 12 from 3-point range. Dillard added 12 points, and Zac Swansey had 11.
Murray State led by as many as six early in the first half and held a 12-8 lead after a 3-pointer by Canaan.
Zach Bailey hit the next shot, a 3-pointer for Tennessee Tech. The Racers' Latreze Mushatt was called for a charge, and Inameti hit a jumper to put the Golden Eagles up 13-12, giving them their first lead of the game.
The teams were tied four times and traded the lead three times before Murphy began a shooting clinic for Tennessee Tech. Murphy sank a jumper and a pair of 3s as part of an 11-2 run that put the Golden Eagles up 27-23 with 4:34 left in the first half.
"I just came out aggressive," Murphy said. "I hit one of my first shots. My teammates saw I was feeling it, so they just kept giving me the ball. I credit it all to my teammates, they just kept feeding me."
Murphy, second on Tennessee Tech's career scoring list with 1,957 points, hit another 3 from the wing with 1:37 left before halftime to push the lead to six points. He finished the half with 14 points on 5-of-7 shooting, and the Golden Eagles led 34-30 at the break.
The Golden Eagles went 7 for 10 from 3-point range in the first half, but only 3 of 9 after that.