2001-02 Season: 19-13 OVC Tournament Champions
The Racers began the post-Isaac Spencer era with cautious optimism. They were again picked to finish second, behind Tennessee Tech, in the OVC but head coach Tevester Anderson wasn't so sure that was warranted.
"I don't like our team very much right now," he said at the time. "We have kids who have a lot of talent, but it's going to take some time in putting that talent together. We're just not at that level right now."
Most thought he was sandbagging, including Tennessee Tech head coach Jeff Lebo, “There's no doubt about that. He's been around long enough to know how the deal works. Everybody knows the road to a championship still goes through Murray."
The Racers did return two regular starters in Chris Shumate and Andi Hornig along with four part-time starters – Justin Burdine, Antione Whelchel, Cuthbert Victor, and Kevin Paschel. So the cupboard wasn't entirely bare.
And the season began with lopsided victories over Division II opponents West Florida and Colorado-Colorado Springs. So spirits were high when Murray State rolled into Bowling Green to play the Hilltoppers on November 24. Western had already beaten Kentucky by 12 and was ranked 25th in the nation.
For a while it looked like the Racers would have an easy time with their arch rival as a capacity crowd of 8,117 saw them roar to an 18-9 advantage. But their shots stopped falling and Western rallied. By halftime the Hilltoppers were up 48-35 and they won going away, 101-77.
"We really didn't play the kind of ball I thought we could for 40 minutes," Anderson said after the game. "We did for the first 8-10 minutes, but we got winded and we didn't execute when we started subbing.
"Western is a very good and experienced team, but we should've played much better. We missed a lot of putbacks in the first half, we weren't cohesive and our offense wasn't very efficient because we went one-on-one a lot."
MSU followed that loss with wins over Chattanooga and UAB at the RSEC.
For the second straight year they found themselves in a deep hole against UAB as the Blazers had a 19 point lead (55-36) with 11 ½ minutes to play.
Then Anderson went to his bench and shifted to the matchup zone he had employed successfully against UAB the year before.
Reserves Antonio Henderson, Rashard Harris, James Singleton, and Cuthbert Victor along with starting point guard Kevin Paschel held the Blazers to just three field goals the rest of the way as they pulled out a stirring 74-69 victory.
"We've been in a situation like this before and we've come back to get it done," Paschel told reporters after the game. "The biggest thing we had to do was play real good defense. The coaches keep telling us that if we play well defensively, then our offense will come around. And it did."
The Racers were 4-1 but an alarming trend started to take shape with a loss at Indiana State. They just weren't consistent. And with a trip to Louisville for the Billy Minardi Classic on the horizon that was more than a little troubling.
Anderson was definitely concerned, so he altered his starting lineup for the game against Virginia Tech in the opening round of the BMC. Burdine and Shumate were benched in favor of Victor and Singleton.
The Racers responded with a 66-63 victory over the Hokies. Following the game a reporter from the Courier Journal asked Anderson how it felt to get a victory over a team from the Big East. He replied, “I'm undefeated against the Big East.”
But the lineup change did not alter the see-saw pattern of the season as the Racers lost to host Louisville 84-69 in the final. They followed that with a 69-65 victory at DePaul and a 103-72 victory over Tennessee State.
After the victory over the Blue Demons Anderson noted, "I'm real proud of this basketball team. I think they showed a lot of resiliency in bouncing back from the loss to Louisville. This was a big win for our program.
"Our bench came in and really played well," Anderson noted. "Guys like Rod Thomas, who hasn't played in a while, came in and gave us some big minutes when our starters had to be out. And Justin Burdine did another great job for us."
Burdine came off the bench to score 25 points and it looked as though the Racers were on a roll. Unfortunately the wheels were about to fall off.
Murray State lost eight of its next 10 games. They lost at Chattanooga 71-58. Gardner Webb embarrassed them at the RSEC, 80-66. Tennessee Tech routed them in Cookeville, 78-59. And, they gave up 92 points to both Eastern Kentucky and Morehead in back-to-back to losses.
With a 3-5 record in conference play and the team in a tailspin, failing to qualify for the OVC tournament was a distinct possibility.
Injuries were partly to blame for the slide. Shumate had contracted a mysterious illness and didn't play after the Indiana State game. Harris and Hornig suffered knee injuries in mid-January. And Singleton was hampered by an ankle injury.
All of these complications hindered the Racers. But, Shumate's illness may have hurt the most.
"When he became ill, I felt like it wasn't going to hurt us very badly," Anderson said in late January. "But, it hurt us worse than I thought. We miss his shooting quite a bit. And, when he's on the floor he makes other players better, because he draws defenders and he can execute the offense. Defensively, Whelchel and Victor fill the small forward role very well. But the small forward needs to be a scorer and they haven't shot the ball consistently well."
He seemed at a loss when asked how the Racers could get back on track though.
"I've talked to other coaches that have been here," he noted. "I asked Scotty Edgar what he did when he was down and he said he just worked his tail off. When your back's against the wall that's when you have to work the hardest. And that's what we're trying to do."
The fans and the media were up in arms as some questioned whether the team cared and others called for Anderson to be fired.
"I took it hard because Coach T recruited me and most of the other players," Victor said at the time. "So, we had a team meeting and we decided that he was not going to lose his job because of us."
"It was really hard for us when we went into that little slump," Whelchel said. "But, we pulled together. We didn't let it get us down. When everybody counted us out, when everybody said our season was over, when it was rumored that Coach T was through, that motivated us instead of getting us down. And, then we started taking better shots and playing as a team. When we started doing that we became very successful."
As the first week of February began Anderson drew a metaphorical line in the sand. It was time for the losses to stop. He met with each player individually and scheduled practices at 6 a.m.
"I didn't spend too much time thinking about the adversity," he said. "I felt like we had the talent to win and I believed I had our players ready to win."
Not many Racer fans shared that belief, but those who did made the short drive to Martin, Tennessee. on February 2 and they witnessed the rebirth of the team and earned Anderson's heartfelt appreciation.
"I'll never forget the fans that went with us to Martin because they're the core fans," he said in a voice strained with emotion.
The importance of that game at Martin cannot be overstated. It was the first of four games in seven days, a stretch that would determine whether the Racers would become road kill or contenders. And, it came after a week of soul searching and two-a-day practices with the first practice each day coming before sunrise. A loss after so much introspection and hard work might have finished the team while a victory would validate their efforts.
They took the floor with the cheers of their die-hard fans ringing in their ears and they blew the Skyhawks away, 92-74.
"We were playing extra hard for Coach T," Paschel said. "He showed us the way with those practices at six in the morning. And that showed during the Tennessee-Martin game. We really played hard and we played as a team. It was really, really important that we won at UT-Martin. It showed that if we played hard and shared the ball we could win."
Murray State wound up sweeping the week to push their record to 13-11 overall and 7-5 in the OVC. Among those four wins was a 19 point drubbing of league leader Tennessee Tech, a team that had routed them a month earlier.
Some players would have been intimidated, facing the Golden Eagles after being so thoroughly dominated by them in Cookeville. But, the Racers knew no fear.
"We weren't worried," Victor said. "We knew we could beat any team in the OVC. We just played badly at Tennessee Tech. But, beating them proved to us that we were the best team in the conference."
The winning streak reached seven games before MSU lost to Morehead at the RSEC in the final game of the regular season. But, that turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
"When we lost to Morehead it woke us up and showed us that we could be beaten," Paschel said. "We had won seven in a row. And that eighth game told us that if we don't come out and play really hard we can be beat. It showed that night because we didn't really get on track until the end of the game. I think it made us play even harder when we got to Louisville."
Actually, it made them play even harder in the OVC tournament opener against Eastern Illinois at the RSEC as they put on a show Racer fans may never forget, suffocating the Panthers with incredible defensive intensity as they challenged not just every shot, but every dribble. And, that game marked the emergence of Whelchel as the team's defensive stopper.
"It's flattering to have a coach tell you he wants you to guard the other team's best player," Whelchel said. "That's what coach asked me to do right before the Eastern Illinois game when we beat them by a hundred. And, I kind of accepted the challenge and I think I proved myself. I did a good job on Henry Domercant and then I did a good job on Ricky Minard when we played Morehead."
Whelchel exaggerates when he says the Racers beat EIU by a hundred. The actual margin was 47. But, after having lost to the Panthers by two earlier in the year at home and beating them by one at their place the blowout was completely unexpected. Indeed, most fans were worried about the game. Fortunately, the team wasn't.
"We just wanted to show everybody that we were for real, and that the seven game winning streak wasn't just luck," Paschel said. "We were determined to come out, share the ball, and play as a team. And, we knew we would beat them. We didn't know by how much, but we knew we would beat them."
At the OVC tournament, in Louisville's Kentucky International Convention Center, the Racers easily dispatched a Morehead squad that had swept them during the regular season as Whelchel shackled Minard before facing regular season conference champion Tennessee Tech.
"I enjoyed the court and how the seating was and our fans were incredible," Paschel said. "They never sat down. They always cheered for us. When the games got close they still cheered. It was a great atmosphere. But, we didn't gawk at our surroundings. We were really focused. No one was going over here, or over there to look around. Everybody was in their rooms waiting on the games. That's all we talked about was game issues and what we do when we get there."
That business like focus caught the attention of Tech coach Jeff Lebo who said you could tell the difference between his team and the Racers in the way they walked through the hotel. He complained that the Golden Eagles were hanging over the railings and goofing around, while MSU was focused and composed, as though they had been through it before - which of course they had. But, credit for that focus goes to the coach.
"When Coach T takes us on the road he always tells us it's a business trip," Paschel said. "It's never for enjoyment. You can have fun after you win the game."
Sometimes, OVC teams get a reputation for playing finesse basketball because they aren't as big as some of the teams from the power conferences. But, the game between Tech and Murray State was a physical battle that was won in the trenches. And that's what the Racers expected going in.
"We knew it was going to be a battle," Paschel said. "Some of the players on our team had read newspapers where Coach Lebo said it was going to be a football game. So we knew it was going to be a defensive battle and we just wanted to win it on the defensive end."
Winning such a battle requires an iron will and an enormous amount of energy. MSU's iron will was forged during their losing streak earlier in the season and they got an extra dose of energy as soon as they ran out onto the floor.
"Murray State has always had good fans," Whelchel said. "But instead of being two hours away in Nashville it was an extra couple of hours in Louisville. And, to see that many people there just made us want to play that much harder. When we came out and saw our side double Tennessee Tech's side, that just made us want to win it even more."
The Racers led for most of the game. But Tech took a 69-68 lead with just over a minute to play. Burdine hit a runner in the lane with 9.1 seconds left to make it 70-69. Then, with about two seconds left, the Golden Eagles' Cameron Crisp scooted around a screen only to find MSU's defensive stopper, Whelchel, all over him. All he could do was throw it at the basket.
"I was hoping it wouldn't go in," Whelchel said. "When Beasley took out JB, I went out to pick Crisp up and made him take a bad shot. And I was like 'Don't go in, don't go in, don't go in!' And, from the time he missed it until we started celebrating I can't remember anything. I can't remember the follow shot. I can't remember anything."
Whelchel's plea was answered as both Crisp's heave and Damien Kinloch's follow shot clanged harmlessly off the rim. And then, it was time to celebrate.
"It felt really great because we had so much adversity throughout the season," Paschel said. "We were in seventh place at the end of January and then to jump up to third and win the tournament was just a great feeling. I think we really deserved the title because of the way we fought back and played as a team."
Burdine was a first team all-conference selection and Singleton was named to the second team.
After their 70-69 victory over Tech the Racers went on to play Georgia in the NCAA tournament. MSU got off to a great start and led 25-11 before Georgia took control. The Bulldogs pulled away in the second half and cruised to an 85-68 victory.