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Oh so close: Racers rally past 'Hawks
Southeast Missouri State appeared to have Murray State on the ropes Saturday.
Then the Racers showed Southeast and a national television audience watching on ESPNU why they are again the team to beat in the Ohio Valley Conference.
Three-time defending OVC champion MSU rallied from a 12-point second-half deficit to post a 74-66 victory in front of an announced season-high Show Me Center crowd of 4,915.
"The atmosphere was great, the energy was great," Southeast junior forward Tyler Stone said. "They just outplayed us, honestly. They were more physical."
MSU improved to 11-3 overall and 2-0 in OVC play after capturing the battle among squads picked first and second in the conference's West Division.
The Redhawks fell to 10-7 and 2-1 as they had their season-high four-game winning streak snapped.
"This game didn't make or break our season," Southeast coach Dickey Nutt said. "We're very disappointed we didn't give our fans a win tonight. But I think it shows our program has arrived, when we expect to win a game like this."
For much of the way it looked like the Redhawks would do just that.
Junior college transfer guard A.J. Jones scored Southeast's first nine points as the Redhawks built a quick 9-1 lead.
Southeast was ahead all the way during a first half that ended 34-28. Twice the Redhawks built the advantage to 12 points early in the second half.
"We knew it was going to be a tough game. SEMO has a very talented team," MSU coach Steve Prohm said. "They came out and threw a couple of punches at us."
But All-American senior guard Isaiah Canaan and senior forward Ed Daniel refused to let the Racers lose.
Canaan, who entered as the OVC's top scorer at nearly 21 points per game, experienced a miserable first half that saw him score five points on 2-of-8 shooting while committing three turnovers.
"Credit SEMO for making the shots tough for me," said Canaan, who was primarily hounded by Jones and senior guard Corey Wilford, among others. "They did a great job of pressuring me in the first half."
But Canaan took over in the second half, especially during a decisive 19-3 run that saw the Racers turn a 49-39 deficit with just over 14 minutes left into a 58-52 lead with just under seven minutes remaining. Southeast never caught back up.
Canaan buried three 3-pointers and scored 13 points to key the game-changing stretch that ended with his jumper.
"I think there was about a five-minute stretch where Murray made their run. That was the difference in the game," Nutt said. "We let Isaiah roam a little too freely in the second half. Our intensity wasn't as good. ... He was making some unbelievable shots."
Canaan wound up with 28 points after pouring in 23 second-half points as he hit 6 of 10 from the field, including 3 of 4 from beyond the arc. He was also 8 of 9 from the free-throw line, 6 of 6 in the final 1:18.
"I knew I had to pick it up sooner or later," Canaan said. "The whole team as a whole, we did it together in the second half."
Daniel, a tenacious 6-foot-7, 228-pounder who entered as the OVC's leading rebounder at 10.5 per game, dominated Southeast inside with 15 points -- right about his average -- and 17 rebounds.
"He's tough. He's a physical and energetic player," Stone said.
Daniel helped MSU outrebound Southeast 43-29. He had 10 of MSU's 16 offensive rebounds as the Redhawks managed just seven offensive boards. The Racers had a 13-4 edge in second-chance points.
"We had no answer for Ed Daniel," Nutt said. "Ten offensive rebounds in our house can't happen."
The Racers took their first lead on Daniel's layup that made it 54-52 with 10:38 remaining. It was part of a 10-0 MSU run that saw Southeast go scoreless for more than five minutes.
Southeast still had its chances late as the Redhawks cut the deficit to three points three times, the last on Wilford's 3-pointer that made it 65-62 with 3:07 left.
MSU came up empty on its next two possessions but Southeast could not capitalize.
The Racers then iced the victory by making 9 of 10 free throws in the final 1:18, including six by Canaan.
"It was a great win. We're fortunate to get out of here with a win," Prohm said. "Ed's been a warrior on the glass. Credit Isaiah. It was a tremendous second half. He pressed a little bit, took some tough, contested shots in the first half. The second half was the real Isaiah Canaan."
Southeast also had its share of individual highlights, led by Jones, who scored in double figures in consecutive games for the first time this season.
"Just focus, nothing more," Jones said. "Confidence. ... Everything counts now. I have to be consistent for myself and my teammates."
Jones led Southeast with 20 points, 12 in the first half. He hit 7 of 10 field goals, including all three of his 3-pointers.
"He did well. His focus was there," Nutt said.
Stone scored 16 points and Wilford added 15 along with five assists. Junior point guard Lucas Nutt had a game-high seven assists.
"I thought our guard play was good," Dickey Nutt said.
Southeast will get at least one more shot at the Racers this year, the regular-season finale March 2 in Murray, Ky. The teams could also meet in the OVC tournament.
"We can be disappointed because we didn't finish it," Jones said. "But at the end of the day we got another chance [at MSU]."
Southeast now hits the road to play the predicted top two teams in the OVC East Division, first-year league member Belmont Thursday night and Tennessee State Saturday night. Both games are in Nashville, Tenn.