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UTM looks better vs. Racers

UTM looks better vs. Racers
UTM looks better vs. Racers

UT Martin’s Benzor Siimmons dribbles during the Skyhawks’ defeat on Tuesday evening.
Looks can be deceiving.
At first glance, Murray State’s 66-54 Ohio Valley Conference victory over UT Martin Tuesday has the appearance of another in the long line of double-digit victories in the series matching regional rivals that the Racers have dominated.
But for MSU to beat the Skyhawks for the 37th time in 40 all-time meetings, it had to rally from a nine-point second-half deficit against a youthful UTM squad that showed no fear of the perennial OVC powerhouse and reigning league champion while shooting 68 percent in the game’s first 28 minutes.
Ultimately, though, the battle-tested Racers — who start three seniors and are coming off a 31-win season when they advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament before losing a two-point decision to eventual national runnerup Butler — clamped down defensively.
Murray held the Skyhawks without a field goal for more than 12 minutes in the second half and outscored the host team 36-15 over the final 15:50 to come from behind and keep UT Martin winless in three league games and dropping them to 4-8 overall.
UTM head coach Jason James — whose club has already matched last year’s victory total — was upbeat afterward, despite the loss.
“There are good things and bad things about playing freshmen, and one of the good things about ours is that they had no idea that Murray had dominated this series,” said the second-year Skyhawk skipper, who started three first-year players and played six freshmen in all. “They just went out and played hard and played well until that stretch in the second half.
“I was proud of how we opened the game and how we finished the first half. We didn’t settle for the first good shot; we took even better shots. We were patient and we executed.”
Eventually, however, the seasoned Racers — the preseason pick to win the program’s 22nd OVC championship — doused UTM’s hot shooting by raising their own defensive intensity.
The Skyhawks managed just six free throws from the 15:31 mark until 28 seconds remained and missed 10 consecutive field goals during that time while Murray was 13-of-21 (61.9 percent) from the field during that same span.
“In the second half, though, we had zero assists. We got away from what we did that allowed us to shoot 68 percent, but Murray had a lot to do with that,” James continued. “When they got on a run, they fed off stuff defensively.
“When they feel you get rattled, they’re like sharks in the water smelling blood.”
Terence Smith — one of those aforementioned UT Martin frosh — had 14 of his game- and career-high 20 points in the second half, but was his team’s only double-figure scorer. Smith made 10-of-11 free throws and 5-of-9 field goal attempts.
Another freshman, Troy King, was a point away from twin digits for the Skyhawks after earning league Freshman of the Week honors last week.
Benzor Simmons also had nine points for UTM.
As has been their custom, the balanced Racers (8-4, 2-1 in OVC) had three players with more than 10 points in Ivan Aska (14), Isaiah Canaan (12) and B.J. Jenkins (11). Murray has not had a player score as many as 20 points in any game this season.
Despite being dominated on the interior by much bigger MSU, which held a 29-16 rebounding advantage and enjoyed a 40-24 scoring edge in the paint, the Skyhawks led 28-26 at halftime and quickly expanded on that margin after the break.
Smith scored in transition, then made three-of-four free throws on consecutive possessions to fuel an 11-2 burst and give UT Martin the second of two nine-point leads at 39-30 with just under 16 minutes left.
A technical foul called on Smith for talking to a Murray defender after he made a short floater coincided with the Racers jump-starting their comeback.
Canaan’s old-fashioned 3-point play with 9:35 showing put the visitors in front for good at 46-45 and MSU gradually pulled away while executing at a high level offensively as UTM struggled.
Treys by Canaan and B.J. Jenkins — the latter with 1:28 left that accounted for the first double-figure lead of the contest — down the stretch officially buried the Skyhawks.
UT Martin finished the contest shooting 50 percent (18-of-36), while Murray hit at a 56.3 clip (27-of-48).
The Skyhawks will take a short Christmas break before playing road games at Ohio State (Monday) and at Tennessee a week from tonight.
Sports editor Mike Hutchens can be contacted by e-mail at mhutch@ucmessenger.com.

 

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