Canaan's second half powers Murray St.
MURRAY, Ky. (AP)
Isaiah Canaan stood with a line of 50 autograph seekers and a net around his neck more than an hour after the game.
This was more than a celebration for the junior point guard. This was a coronation for one of the best mid-major players in the country.
''This will be my third one. It kind of feels kind of good to cut these down,'' Canaan said, tugging at the net. ''They're kind of hard to come by in college basketball.''
Not for Murray State.
Canaan scored 17 of his 23 points in the second half and senior Donte Poole added 11 as No. 16 Murray State beat No. 21 Saint Mary's 65-51 on Saturday night for its most convincing win to date over a nationally recognized opponent.
Then the Racers (26-1) celebrated the Ohio Valley Conference regular season title that they had already clinched — their third in a row — with a video message from former coach Billy Kennedy as well as a highlight package for the seniors.
They can also rest easier with their first victory over a quality opponent since beating Memphis in early December before hosting this Bracket Buster matchup with the Gaels.
''If we can finish the season strong, it gives us a chance to get a good seed,'' Racers rookie coach Steve Prohm said. ''But, regardless of where you're seeded — five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 — you're going to play somebody good.''
Maybe someone like St. Mary's, even though this game was never very close in front of 8,825, the largest crowd ever at the CFSB Center.
Murray State jumped out to a 10-2 lead and never trailed, building a double-digit advantage early in the second half and cruising from there.
''This is definitely a confidence-builder for sure. It's a ranked team, so it lets you know that you are as good as the rankings say you are,'' senior Jewuan Long said. ''It gives us confidence to know that we can play with other teams in bigger conferences, so we definitely have more confidence.''
Matthew Dellavedova scored 17 points for Saint Mary's (23-5), which has lost three of four. Now the Gaels will face a 2,300-mile trek home and questions about their NCAA tournament resume.
''I just told our team this: `We have a lot of things we've got to do better, but we need to get everybody on the same page defensively, and we're not there,''' Gaels coach Randy Bennett said. ''Our defensive numbers aren't good, our rebounding has not been good. We've had some slippage.''
Murray State opened the second half with consecutive baskets to take its first double-digit lead as Canaan and the Racers turned up the pressure while shooting 58.1 percent from the field.
In one sequence, Canaan curled off a screen and took a pass from Poole to hit another long three-pointer, and Brandon Garrett blocked Brad Waldow's attempt that led to a 3-on-1 break completed by Canaan after passes from Poole and Zay Jackson.
After Dellavedova answered with a jumper, Canaan hit another shot from beyond the arc that made it 52-35 with 11:28 left as the Racers extended the lead to as many as 19 late.
A banged-up Saint Mary's squad needed two flights and a two-hour bus ride just to reach Murray on Friday. It'll seem like an even longer trip home for the California school with a bus ride back to Nashville after the game and a stop Sunday in Houston before landing in Oakland following this effort.
''We had some adversity to get through with injuries, but us traveling and us coming out here, no bearing,'' Bennett said. ''Where this travel could affect us is here on out. It's a tough four-dayer just to plug in the middle of your conference race. I'm more concerned with that part of it.''
Saint Mary's was without defensive stopper Stephen Holt, who hurt his right knee in Wednesday night's 75-60 loss to Loyola Marymount. Dellavedova rolled his right ankle in the same game, but played without a brace and appeared at times to be the only player willing to try to create for the Gaels after Rob Jones got into foul trouble early.
At times, the atmosphere resembled an oversized high school gymnasium at the CFSB Center with three seniors being honored and a nationally televised broadcast.
Murray State officials warned students earlier in the week not to try to scalp their tickets, and instead, they turned out in force to see a team that started the season with 23 straight wins and rose to as high as ninth in the poll.
Fans began cramming into every nook of the arena that opened in 1998 nearly 90 minutes before tip, with students wrapping around two sides of the building and fans standing up along the very top rows across the steps.
The Racers made it hard to sit early, jumping out to a 10-2 lead capped by threes from Canaan and Poole.
''I was feeling good early. I wanted to come out and get some shots,'' Poole said. ''I got a layup first that boosted my confidence and then I was able to do well in the transition.''
The Gaels never got closer than 20-17 when Dellavedova hit a fadeaway jumper. Jones picked up his third foul with 4:38 left in the first half when he fouled Canaan, who hit a 24-footer.
Canaan couldn't complete the four-point play, but Long added a jumper, and Latreze Mushatt and Ed Daniel each hit two free throws to give Murray State a 34-25 halftime lead. Daniel finished with eight points and eight rebounds.
The Racers fell short of becoming the first team to reach the NCAA tournament with a perfect record since UNLV in 1991 when they lost Feb. 9 to Tennessee State at home, but rebounded to capture their third straight OVC crown with wins against Austin Peay and Southeast Missouri.
They've had NCAA tournament success before when Canaan and his crew beat Vanderbilt in the first round in 2010. Now they can resume the task of finishing up the OVC slate after this dominating performance, which should ease any doubt about their NCAA tournament pedigree as at least an at-large team.
''I'm sure a lot of people tuned in to the game. There were still people around the country that wanted to find out who we were,'' Canaan said. ''Hopefully, we showed them today. To get a great win against another great team, it can't get no better.''