Louisville, Ky. • Isaiah Canaan is making the most of his do-over.
Two years after fumbling away Murray State’s chance at being the mid-major darlings of the NCAA tournament, Canaan scored 15 points and backcourt mate Donte Poole added 13 points to make sure they’d stick around for a while in a 58-41 victory over Colorado State on Thursday.
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 Murray State needed a lift. Colorado State (20-12) hung around for a half until Poole was popped in the nose by Wes Eikmeier’s inadvertent elbow and left bloodied early in the second. The Racers rallied around him in an 18-2 run that blew the game open.
Colorado State’s self-proclaimed ankle-biters started the second half by missing nine of their first 10 shots and finished shooting 33 percent for the game. 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 tournament since 2003.
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.
Murray State moves on to play the winner of third-seed Marquette and 14th-seed BYU in the West Regional on Saturday, but this was a 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 over one poorly played half on Feb. 9 when they squandered a 13-point lead in their only loss to Tennessee State.
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 the half 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, Jewuan 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.
It did little to daze the Racers.
Freshman Zay Jackson, who came in and gave Murray State a lift playing point guard with Canaan sliding to shooting guard, made a basket, and Daniel added another to make it 34-26, forcing Rams coach Tim Miles to call a timeout.
Even when Jackson missed a jumper, the ball bounced right to Canaan for an easy two. Then Jackson stole a long pass from Carr and forced him to guard the middle of nowhere in transition defense by calmly pulling up and hitting a 3.
Poole, who had time to receive medical attention and return, made a layup to cap the spurt with 11:23 left and put Murray State comfortably ahead 41-26.
Colorado State got off to a quick start thanks to Hornung’s work on the glass and Greg Smith hit a 3-pointer that put the Rams up 10-3 just under 5 minutes in.
It could’ve been greater, but Poole, who committed to the Rams but failed to academically qualify by half a credit, scored his team’s eight points until Canaan and the rest of the Racers got going.