LOUISVILLE — After taking an elbow to the face, Donte Poole knew something was wrong in the second half Thursday when he heard a crackling sound as Murray State’s trainer jiggled his crooked nose back into place.
Poole returned to action to help lead the sixth-seeded Racers to a 58-41 victory over 11th-seeded Colorado State in a West Region first-round game. But Murray State’s performance offensively in its NCAA tournament opener was as bumpy and uneven as Poole’s wounded nose looked after the game.
Playing less than four hours from campus, the Racers shot 39.2 percent from the field and 50 percent from the free throw line. But that was good enough to continue a magical season for once-beaten Murray State, which will play the winner of the game between third-seeded Marquette and 14th-seeded Brigham Young in Saturday’s second round.
“We have a lot to prove every time we play to people who have not seen us,” said Poole, who will await X-rays to know whether his nose is broken. “There are probably 2,000 people every game who have not seen us play. We want them to think we are a really good team.”
While in high school, Poole, who scored 13 points Thursday, came within a half a credit of becoming academically eligible to play at Colorado State. Instead, he went the prep school route and wound up at Murray State, where he and standout guard Isaiah Canaan helped the Racers (31-1) achieve a national top 10 ranking this season.
They know they can play better offensively than they did Thursday and likely will need to Saturday. At one point in the second half, the usually reliable Canaan pulled up for a three-point shot, but the ball missed everything. Colorado State fans bellowed “Air-ball, air-ball!” while Canaan lowered his head in disbelief.
“It’s a different feeling” playing in the NCAA tournament, said Canaan, who scored a team-high 15 points. “I’m used to make shots like that. If I get one like that next time, hopefully I make it.”
After trailing by one point at halftime Thursday, the Racers emerged from the locker room to try to establish themselves defensively. They did so by holding Colorado State, one of the nation’s better three-point shooting teams, to 3-of-14 shooting behind the three-point arc in the game. The Rams (20-12) made 33.3 percent of their shots from the field and committed 22 turnovers.
Two years ago, Murray State upset fourth-seeded Vanderbilt in the first round before losing in the next game by two points to eventual national runner-up Butler. This year’s team feels it perhaps could be the mid-major upstart to make a deep run after a sterling first season under Coach Steve Prohm.
When Prohm was promoted to Murray State’s head coach on May 23, he thanked an unlikely newly retired coach during his introduction: Gary Williams. Prohm, a native of Vienna, Va., recognized that Williams’s unexpected retirement after the 2010-2011 season touched off a chain reaction of coaching moves that saw Mark Turgeon replace Williams, Billy Kennedy replace Turgeon at Texas A&M and, finally, Prohm succeed Kennedy.
Ten months later, Prohm is one win away from a berth in the Sweet 16.