WKU’s late comeback not enough in loss to rival Murray State

Junior guard Jamal Crook goes in for a layup during the first half of WKU’s game against Murray State at Diddle Arena Thursday night. Murray State beat WKU 70-59. 

Cole Claybourn

WKU’s freshmen have be adamant about not using their youth as an excuse this season.

Head Coach Ken McDonald, however, hasn’t been shy about acknowledging that this year’s team is struggling to find ways to close out games.

It was the same story Thursday night as a late 12-1 run wasn’t enough for the Toppers (2-6), who fell at home to rival and unbeaten Murray State, 70-59.

“We made a run. We put ourselves in position,” McDonald said. “We’re still learning how to finish a game against a good team. I thought Murray was pretty much the same team from beginning to end, and that consistency for them is going to go a long way.”

Murray State opened the game on a 7-0 run before WKU came back and eventually held a five-point lead midway through the first half.

But Murray State then went on a 10-0 run to go up 28-23 with just under five minutes left. They added a 12-2 run later to take a 40-28 lead into halftime, highlighted by 13 first half points from guard Isaiah Canaan.

The light finally went on for the Topper offense midway through the second half when junior guard Jamal Crook caught fire. 

Crook scored 10 points in a span of four minutes, capped off by a reverse layup that brought WKU within three points with the score at 47-44. He finished with a career-high 20 points, 18 of which came in the second half.

Crook, who has recently gave way at the starting position to freshman guard Kevin Kaspar, said he wasn’t playing as if he had anything to prove.

“I’m just trying to do what’s best for my team and just get the wins,” he said.

Once WKU cut the lead to three, the crowd of 3,845 erupted.

But the excitement was short-lived as Murray State then rattled off a 14-1 run after a Canaan layup to go up 61-47 with just over two minutes left, effectively putting the Toppers away.

“It’s always a tough pill to swallow when you get back into the game and it turns out that we lost,” Crook said. “We’re real upset about that one.”

McDonald said he was discouraged because it is a rivalry game.

“I don’t want to be part of this side of (the rivalry),” he said. “I thought they really had the energy tonight. We’re still maturing. That’s the truth of the matter.”

Murray State Head Coach Steve Prohm said the Racers were “fortunate” to walk away with a win.

“Very happy for our guys and our program,” he said. “We just take things day by day. (WKU has) got a very good basketball team. Look for them to really get better as they get into January and February. I really like their young talent.”

No other WKU player finished in double figures, with the highest scorers after Crook being junior center Teeng Akol and freshman forward George Fant with eight points apiece.

Crook played 25 minutes after averaging around 10 for the season coming into Thursday’s game.

As a team, WKU shot 42.9 percent from the floor and finished with 15 turnovers. The Toppers won the rebounding battle 35-33.

Junior guard Isaiah Canaan paced Murray State with 18 points, while forward Ivan Aska added 14 points and Donte Pooled chipped in 10.

Freshman forward Nigel Snipes didn’t play Thursday night because of what McDonald called a “hip flexor.” He said Snipes hadn’t really practiced in three days and simply wasn’t ready to go come game time.

During the second half, Akol went down and had to be helped off the court by a trainer. He did, however, return to action.

Crook and freshman guard T.J. Price suffered injuries throughout the game too, though both appeared to be nothing serious.

Crook cramped up late in the game but said he was fine after the game.

Price, who has been dealing with a deep thigh bruise, took a hit early in the first half and came up limping. He finished with four points in 24 minutes. 

WKU returns to action at 2 p.m. Sunday against Bowling Green State at Diddle Arena.

McDonald said despite the mounting losses, it’s the coaching staff’s job to remain positive with such a young team.

“There are times as a coach where you beat them up pretty good,” he said. “Tonight wasn’t one of those nights. Tonight was a night to talk about some of the positives and talk about what we need to do to make that next jump.

“We don’t have room or time to put our heads down because we are fighting hard and the guys are improving. We’ve played a tough schedule. We’re going to have that feeling of beating a good, quality opponent here soon and then I think it’s going to start building up some confidence for us.”