Murray State keeps balance in upset
SAN JOSE, Calif. – As the pep band played and the alums shrieked and thousands of fans in northern California cheered what now is sure to be their adopted team for the weekend, Murray State guard B.J. Jenkins sprinted the length of the floor to pile on teammate Danero Thomas.
Thomas’ jumper at the buzzer had just turned San Jose into upset city and Jenkins wasn’t about to sit out the celebration.
“Nah, nah, I was all the way in that,” Jenkins said of the pile of Racers players celebrating their 66-65 victory over fourth-seeded Vanderbilt in the first round of the West Regional. “That’s Danero Thomas.”
Jenkins had given the program a scare when he sliced his finger cutting down the nets after the Racers beat Morehead State to win the Ohio Valley Conference tournament. Bad things can happen in a pile of humanity, but Jenkins was willing to take his chances.
“Let the madness begin,” Murray State coach Billy Kennedy said.
That Thomas was at the bottom of that pile was only fitting.
After two free throws by Jermaine Beal had given Vandy a 65-64 lead with 12 seconds left, it was Jenkins who got the first shot at glory. He got a good look at a 3-pointer, but it was off the mark. After a rebound and timeout, the 13th-seeded Racers ran an inbound play – Kennedy says he designed it on the spot – to get the ball to Isacc Miles with four seconds left.
Miles couldn’t get off a shot, but he found Thomas open on the right wing and Thomas hit nothing but net to unleash bedlam at San Jose Arena.
“It’s a difficult thing because I believe in four or five of them in that situation,” Kennedy said. “It just goes by what the feel is.
“It’s difficult in special situations. You’ve just got to go for a feeling. I just believe that was a blessing. It’s not a play that we’ve run before. It’s not a play that we’ve worked on.”
This was by far the biggest of Murray State’s three last-second victories this season. Jenkins hit a shot with 2.6 seconds left to beat Eastern Kentucky in December, and Miles beat the buzzer to dispatch Austin Peay by two points in February.
Naturally, it was time for someone else to make a game-winner. This Murray State team has taken spreading the wealth to a new level. Five Racers entered the game averaging between 10.3 and 10.6 points per game.
“We’ve got a team full of scorers, so anybody could have taken that shot,” said Thomas, whose game-winner gave him 11 points, making him one of three Racers in double figures Thursday. “We believe in each other. If I hadn’t made it, B.J. or Isacc would have made it.”
This looked like Jenkins’ game in the first half. He had nine points at halftime, on nine field-goal attempts - more than he had taken in any of the past eight games. If he wasn’t looking for his shot, he was setting up his teammates off penetration.
When Jenkins drove the ball the length of the court to hit Jeffery McClain with a wraparound pass that led to a layup and free throw for a 35-31 lead late in the first half, the crowd had its first whiff of an upset.
“I came into this game more focused on getting everyone involved and penetrating,” Jenkins said. “I’ve been settling for ‘3s’ a lot toward the end of the season, so I just came here focused on driving to the hole and creating.”
When the Commodores rallied to take a 60-56 lead with 3:46 left, Murray’s Isaiah Canaan answered with a 3-pointer. During a pivotal late stretch when the lead changed hands twice, five Murray State players combined to score 12 points.
This will be an easy team for Cinderella fans to get behind. This was the Racers’ first NCAA tournament win since 1988 – “The year I was born,” Jenkins was quick to point out – and they won it in a manner that should appeal to the everyman. There are no egos on the roster. No go-to guys. There can’t be when six players are within one point of being the leading scorer.
Thursday’s hero deflected any attention.
“It’s great,” Thomas said, “but Isacc found me and I put it in the hole.”
It was tough to discern one player from another in that victory scrum, and that’s probably just fine with the Racers.