LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Donte Poole likely broke his nose and still called it the best experience in the world. Isaiah Canaan kept smiling so wide that he never even heard a question directed his way.
The mid-major darlings are making the most of their do-over.
Two years after Canaan fumbled away Murray State’s chance at a long run in the NCAA tournament, he scored 15 points and Poole added 13 to make sure the Racers will stick around for a while following a 58-41 victory over Colorado State on Thursday.
“It’s just great,” said Poole, who struggled to breathe after taking an inadvertent elbow early in the second half. “Now you want to move onto game two and get that win as well.”
Murray State failed to do that the last time. As a freshman, Canaan was crushed after he mishandled the ball in the closing seconds of a two-point loss to Butler in the second round.
A leader of this group now, he and the rest of the sixth-seeded Racers (31-1) shook off an 11-day wait to return to the tournament as the mid-major team expected to make a long run.
So far, so good.
Poole scored Murray State’s first eight points when the Racers needed a lift. Colorado State (20-12) hung around for a half until Poole was popped in the nose by Wes Eikmeier’s elbow. Poole stuffed gauze in his nose to halt the bleeding and soon returned. He was scheduled to have X-rays to confirm he’d broken his nose.
“It is,” said Poole, who originally committed to Colorado State but failed to qualify academically by half a credit. “As long as we won, I’m fine.”
The Racers rallied around him in an 18-2 run that broke the game open.
“In the timeout, I forgot who it was but they said, ‘Let’s do it for Donte,’” Racers guard Jewuan Long said. “We definitely wanted to help him out when he was down and I think we did a good job with that.”
Colorado State’s self-proclaimed ankle-biters started the second half by missing nine of their first 10 shots. CSU finished shooting 33 percent for the game and was held to its lowest point total of the season.
By the time the offense finally got going, the 11th-seeded Rams were trailing by double digits and on their way out of their first NCAA tournament since 2003.
“We shot poorly because of Murray’s intensity. We just never matched that,” said Colorado State coach Tim Miles, who had a staff member tweet at halftime that the Rams would win the game if they could win the second half.
Pierce Hornung scored 12 points before fouling out late and matched a career high with 17 rebounds, the most for the Rams in a tournament game since Dale Schlueter grabbed 19 in the first round in 1966.
“It didn’t turn out like we wanted but still feel like we accomplished a lot,” Hornung said. “We definitely have goals next year that exceed where this year ended.”
Murray State moves on to play third-seeded Marquette in the West Regional on Saturday, thanks to an impressive display of both offense and defense for a team that’s been in the spotlight all season.
First, the Racers ran off 23 straight wins as the nation’s last unbeaten team, then had to weather the expectations of winning the Ohio Valley Conference crown and a long layoff until this game under first-year coach Steve Prohm.
Each time, they’ve responded, with their lone letdown coming in one poorly played half on Feb. 9 when they squandered a 13-point lead in their only loss to Tennessee State.
“I thought our toughness level was tremendous,” said Prohm, who coached for the first time with his mentor and former boss, Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy, watching in person from the stands.
Rams guard Jesse Carr, who proudly claims he’s from Ainsworth, Neb., the town that’s so anonymous there’s a sign that lets you know you’re in the “Middle of Nowhere,” hit a 3-pointer that gave the Rams a 24-23 lead with 1:52 left in the first half.
Colorado State held that one-point advantage at halftime before faltering. Eikmeier scored 10 points and Carr added 11 points and eight rebounds for Colorado State.
Canaan missed his first 3-pointer to start the second half and clapped his hands in disgust. On the ensuing possession, Long stripped Dorian Green, and Canaan sprinted away for a one-handed dunk that energized the Racers.
Ed Daniel followed with a basket, and the Racers made three of their next four free throws before play stopped when Eikmeier’s elbow left a puddle of Poole’s blood on the floor.
Poole, who had time to receive medical attention and return, made a layup to cap the spurt with 11:23 left that put Murray State comfortably ahead 41-26.
“Even though we’re a six seed, if we play someone higher or lower, it doesn’t matter,” Poole said. “We still play like underdogs. We still feel like we have a lot to prove to our fans and to people who have never seen us.”