The next time a college basketball team makes a run at an unbeaten regular season, it'd be wise not to tempt fate by printing T-shirts celebrating the accomplishment.
First Syracuse suffered its first loss of the season Jan. 21 at Notre Dame just days after it began selling T-shirts commemorating its 20-0 start. Then Murray State met the same fate less than three weeks later after releasing similar T-shirts proclaiming itself the "last of the unbeaten."
Three games shy of its BracketBusters showdown with Saint Mary's and six games short of the end of the regular season, Murray State cracked under the pressure of maintaining its historic streak. It squandered a 13-point second-half lead and fell 72-68 to visiting Tennessee State, watching its dream of an undefeated season crumble amid a hail of costly turnovers, missed blockouts and mental mistakes.
Trailing by one with 10 seconds to go in the game, Murray State wasted a chance to win at the buzzer when Jewuan Long's inbound pass intended for star Isaiah Canaan was stolen by Tennessee State's Patrick Miller. Two missed free throws from Miller gave Murray State a second opportunity to win it, but Canaan lost control of his dribble as he zoomed up court and committed a loose-ball foul diving after the ball.
The way Murray State survived close calls against Southern Miss and San Francisco in nonleague play and against Southeastern Missouri State and Morehead State in the OVC, it seemed a glimmer of hope remained even after Tennessee State sank two foul shots. Instead, Ed Daniel's baseball pass with 3.5 seconds left sailed over everyone and out of bounds, sealing Murray State's first loss after 23 straight victories.
Even though not having the burden of maintaining an undefeated season will surely ease some of the pressure on Murray State, there's no way the Racers can spin this first loss as being a good thing.
First of all, losing to a Tennessee State team ranked 186th in the RPI will likely drop Murray State from a No. 5 or 6 seed to a No. 7 or 8 seed in next week's NCAA tournament projections. Secondly, it calls into question whether the Racers can be secure of their spot in the NCAA tournament at all if they lose their home game against Saint Mary's a week from Saturday and fall again in the OVC tournament.
Murray State boasts a gaudy record, an elite guard in Canaan and nonconference wins over Memphis, Southern Mississippi and Dayton, but the weakness of the OVC had its RPI hovering around No. 50 even before Thursday's loss. A three-loss Murray State would be the most debated bubble team in the nation heading into Selection Sunday.
It would be an absolute shame to see Murray State get left out of the NCAA tournament because of a few late slip-ups. It would behoove the Racers to bounce back from this loss and finish strong so they eradicate any possibility of that happening.
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