CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Maybe tonight will be the spark.
After a questionable attempt at game-winning heroism by Murray State's Ja Morant fails on the penultimate possession, the Governors have the ball with a chance to tie or win. After a timeout, they go for the win -- Zach Glotta shoots a three from the wing with four seconds left. You can hear Austin Peay fans gasps as it goes in and out of the basket, but the Racers, who had already given up 12 offensive rebounds, aren't in position. Steve Harris comes down with the ball, goes back up and as the buzzer sounds, puts in what looks to be a game-tying basket. The referee closest to us on press row signals the basket is good with ferocity.
The Dunn Center erupts. Immediately, we know it's going to the monitor. Half of press row had a cell phone out, taping the play, and we all begin scurrying, looking at each others screen, to see if someone has the definitive angle.
"This place will lose their mind if this is overturned," I tweet.
On my watch, I start feeling buzzes -- notifications of tweets from fans watching the game at home telling me the basket is about to be waved off.
Meanwhile, I'm transfixed on the benches. Austin Peay is huddled -- it looks like all business, they're getting ready for five more minutes. Murray State's bench is gathered, but seem hardly focused. Did they just blow it? I feel like I can see going through the players head. They led the entire second half until that final play, and they're waiting, hoping they're about to get bailed out by the clock.
And then the announcement comes. The referees leave their huddle at the end of the scoring table, and one steps forward.
No good. The basket is waved off. Murray State escapes.
To my right, I hear the Murray State fans cheering. But it's what I didn't hear that surprises me.
This place didn't lose their mind. They didn't explode. They, mostly, just seem deflated.
I'll get to the game, the ridiculous ending, what it means for the conference title, and what it means for March, in a moment. But my first thought as I sit on press row once again in Dunn Arena is how different tonight felt.
Outside of "The Bank" in Murray, I've been to this arena more than any other. I've been here as a fan, and I rarely if ever missed a game between these two teams when OVC Ball was in it's heyday.
There are signs -- rather small and insignificant, stuck in the corner of the stands hanging over rafters that call this rivalry the "Battle of the Border," thanks to a generous sponsor of course.
I lived this rivalry for years, and never thought it needed a name. They were Peay. We (back when I felt I had a stake) were Murray. That's all we needed. For years, we were both great teams. Loos' Governors against Anderson's or Cronin's or Kennedy's Racers. Like most great rivalries, winning those games each year mattered (almost) as much as winning a title that year.
Tonight, I leave here with a simple question, outside of what's going to happen in March when these teams possibly, if not inevitably, meet again.
Is this still a premier rivalry?
I ask because for much of the night, I was able to have a comfortable conversation with the person next to me on press row.
I ask because even though both teams are fighting for the conference title, tonight's "sold out" crowd somehow led to 750 empty seats.
I ask...because since Belmont entered the league, the paradigm of the OVC has seemingly shifted; It's the Bruins, the Racers -- and the rest.
Part of me wants to dismiss the question: of course this is still the rivalry. It's Murray State and Austin Peay. Empty seats or not, this was the largest crowd in this building all season. When Austin Peay came out of the gate knocking down threes, the crowd was roaring. Every time Ja Morant touched the ball in the first 5 minutes, the crowd reflexively booed, as they should.
But it's not hard to have doubts; Tonight's crowd was the biggest of the season for Austin Peay, but Morant has had brought the crowds to SIUE, to TTU -- everywhere in the conference this team has traveled. Sure, they booed Ja, but they didn't boo Tevin Brown when he hit three big threes in just a few minutes as the Racers went on a first half run, and their early enthusiasm directed at Morant couldn't last, and didn't return as Ja helped lead the Racers to a massive win as far as the title race currently stands.
Even the Murray State crowd felt small, quieter than usual. (Although the ticket situation may have played into this)
Here's the moment I really noticed it: With 2:42 to play, Austin Peay's Jabari McGhee hit a shot with a foul to bring the Governors within four, but missed the free-throw. The reaction in the arena was...minor. As the Racers brought the ball up the court, a broken "defense" chant tries to break out, but two different student sections are on two different timings and it never really materilized. That same possession, Murray State's Darnell Cowart fouls out.
The reaction? A cheer. No jeering. No chant. Not really anything. Just...a cheer.
Maybe it was a fluke -- maybe it's because the Racers, despite never putting the game away, also never gave up the lead in the second half until the final not-quite-buzzer-beating bucket, which nearly sent the game to overtime. Maybe it's because after a free-flowing first half, the second half reverted into a sometimes sloppy, whistle-heavy nightmare scenario for a rare OVC game that's not only televised, but moved up to a higher profile network.
Jeff Bidwell, sports director at Local 6 and guy who has put up with and even encouraged my shenanigans since I started OVC Ball, put a poll on his Twitter account ahead of the Belmont-Murray game this year, asking which rival Murray State fans cared about more. They chose Belmont, and I immediately wrote it off to recency bias; of course Murray fans picked Belmont, it's who they were playing that weekend.
Now, I'm not so sure.
Which is a shame. Because Austin Peay is good again. Really good. Championship-level good.
And so is Murray, with another player that's going to get a real shot in the NBA.
Maybe it'll be different in Murray.
Maybe it'll be different in Evansville.
Because, unless something really surprising happens, this has OVC semifinal matchup written all over it.
Will you talk about the game now?
Sure, because it was a really good one. Austin Peay, who entered tonight's game with the best three-point shooting in league play, hit nearly as many three-pointers in the first three minutes (3) as the did in the next 37 (4). Morant might not have had a Sportscenter highlight you'll be seeing for days to come (although he came really close on at least one occasion) but he did put up 32 points and 7 assists in another great performance.
Murray State has had problems putting teams away in the past, and tonight was another example. Murray State had multiple opportunities in the second half to put Austin Peay on the back foot, but every time they just couldn't make the big play they needed. (Or Terry Taylor made it instead) That second-to-last play I talked about early was one example; Ja Morant was going to take that shot. He knew it, Austin Peay knew it. He never had a clean look, and while I love, in theory, a star player taking the ball in his hands with the game on the line, in that situation it didn't make a lot of sense. I'm not sure what he saw on the floor, but that seemed like a rough decision in a big moment.
I'll get to more on Morant, who this was the first time I had the pleasure of seeing him play in person in a minute, but let's start with Austin Peay. There should be no doubt they're good enough to win the OVC this year -- their path to a regular season championship took a hit, but the tournament title is the real prize here. Taylor is a real threat across the court; he can play inside, he's a great rebounder but he's got the range to hit threes -- there aren't a lot of OVC guys that can do that, and I don't think he's a guy we're talking about enough. I like the compliment that Chris Porter-Bunton provides -- he has range (even if he doesn't shoot as often) but is another player that can pound inside, and he found success tonight when Taylor was covered. Steve Harris had an off shooting game tonight, but he did show he can get good looks -- he just needs to knock them down when he gets them.
Okay, anyone saying that Murray State is just Morant isn't paying enough attention. I've made this analogy once already this season, but we've seen the difference between a superstar surrounded with talent and one with less talent; look at Isaiah Canaan's junior vs senior year, for instance. Tevin Brown provided a great offensive spark in the first half with a series of three-pointers, and KJ Williams and Darnell Cowart are solid interior components. But Morant -- look, I've been watching more on TV than in person this year, so my view may be a bit biased by the love and adoration ESPN places upon him -- he is without a doubt the most exciting college basketball player I can remember in this conference. Cannan was amazing, his range was essentially 'is he in the gym,' and he had games that made me giddy. Cameron Payne could get to the rim and handle the ball better than anyone I've ever seen.
Morant is a different kind of talent, one I've not seen before. His ability to see the floor brings back memories of Craig Bradshaw, but Bradshaw wasn't athletic like Morant is. Morant can get to the rim like Payne, but it seems more effortless. I can't think of a talent like him I've ever witnessed, and seeing him in person only impressed me even more.
You only have to look at the standings to see how important this is for the OVC Tournament. Murray State and Belmont are now the lone duo atop the conference, and neither the Racers or Governors control their own fate for the one seed, meaning they could reasonably be two (or three including JSU) teams playing for only one double-bye in Evansville. Belmont's schedule the rest of the way is fairly easy, with Eastern Illinois the only team on the slate you would think could possibly give the Bruins much trouble. (Although they struggled with Tennessee State tonight, so...) Austin Peay gets a second shot at Murray this year, and it's become a must-win to get a double-bye.
With the top four teams seemingly divided by so little, being a little bit more rested seems like a pretty nice advantage.
I hate to end this with something so trite, but if you ask me what tonight means in the long run, the answer is...not much, really.
Austin Peay is good enough to win in Evansville in March. So is Murray State.
Tonight might provide a bit of fuel for both, for Austin Peay to get one back they feel they should of had, (or at least a chance at in overtime) and Murray to finally learn how to put away a game late.
Tonight was an incredible game, even if the atmosphere didn't live up to Murray State - Austin Peay games of old.
But maybe tonight will remind fans why this rivalry has always been so fun. It's games like this, decided by the thousandths of a second. Two teams at the top of the league, fighting for surpremacy.
This is what college basketball is about. This is why the NBA will never compare, no matter how great the talent is, in so many ways to the passion of the college game.
Austin Peay heads to Murray to end the season. A double-bye in Evansville could very well be on the line.
If that's not enough reason for the rivalry to reignite, it may just very well be flickering out.