EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. – SIUE made a run at league-leading Murray State on Saturday afternoon at the Vadalabene Center, but the Racers held on for a 75-66 victory in front of 1,517 fans on Alumni Association Day.
The Cougars fell to 8-17 overall and 4-10 in the Ohio Valley Conference. Murray State improved to 20-5 overall and stayed atop the league standings at 12-2. The Racers won their seventh consecutive game.
"They (Racers) hit a big basket right before the half and that shifted the momentum," SIUE Head Coach Jon Harris said. "Then they came out with their guns blazing in the second half. That was the difference."
SIUE led 31-28 late in the half before Murray State cut it to 31-30. Then Jonathan Stark of the Racers hit a 3-pointer before the buzzer to give the visitors a 33-31 halftime edge. Murray State went on to outscore SIUE 17-3 the first six minutes of the second half and widen its lead to 50-34.
"Jonathan is one of the top shooters in the country," Murray State coach Matt McMahon said of Stark, the OVC's leading scorer last year and this season. "And that 3-point basket to end the first half was really big. We came out the halftime break and really played good defense."
Stark scored a game-high 28 points, thanks to making 14 of 16 free throws, including six foul shots in the last 67 seconds.
"He doesn't get rattled, he plays at a good pace and he's not afraid of the moment," Harris said of Stark.
Jalen Henry's 18 points and six rebounds spurred the Cougars. David McFarland chipped in with 13 points, all in the first half. He also had four assists. Keenan Simmons snared 10 rebounds as the Cougars outrebounded the taller Racers 36-32.
"We made it a key emphasis to outrebound them and we did, just like we did against Jacksonville State," Harris said. "I also thought we were aggressive on offense in taking the ball to the basket."
The Cougars converted 20 of 21 free throws, with McFarland going 9-for-9 from the foul line. SIUE made 21 of 55 shots, though just 4 of 22 from 3-point range. However, the Cougars were saddled with 17 turnovers.
"You can't make that many turnovers against Murray State," Harris said. "We had some good looks with our shooting, but shooting comes and goes," Harris said. "We really haven't shot it well the last couple of games."
Yet the Cougars fought back after Murray State surged in front 67-51 with 2:47 to play. Daniel Kinchen of the Cougars hit a pair of 3-pointers and Henry cashed in on two free throws to slice the Racers' advantage to 67-59. SIUE got to within 68-62 on Jaylen McCoy's 3-pointer with 57 seconds remaining. Nevertheless, Murray State held on for the win, its 19th in 22 games against SIUE.
"We competed with them, but we had a little lull at the start of the second half and that was the difference in the game," Harris said.
He added, "We have to be stronger mentally, but that's easier to say than do. I think we can compete with anybody in the league. Give Murray State credit. They did what they had to do. But this was a game we could have won had we done some things differently."
Now, it's some road work for the Cougars. SIUE plays at 7 p.m. Thursday against UT Martin in Martin, Tennessee and then goes to Southeast Missouri in Cape Girardeau for a 4:15 start on Saturday, Feb. 17.
"Honestly, we play better on the road," Harris said, looking ahead to next week. "We have to find a way to play better at home."
The Cougars final home game is at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 22 with Austin Peay. Their regular-season finale is Saturday, Feb. 24 at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston. The eight-team OVC tourney begins Wednesday, Feb. 28 at the Ford Center in Evansville, Ind.