EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. – Tyresse Williford of the SIUE men's basketball team had a memorable game Saturday night, but the Cougars couldn't quite knock off high-flying Murray State at the Vadalabene Center.
Williford, a 5-foot-10, inch junior guard, scored a career-high 33 points in the Cougars' 82-72 loss to the Racers in front of 2,178 fans. Ja Morant's career-best 40 points paced surging Murray State, which improved to 15-2 and 6-0 in the Ohio Valley Conference. The Racers have won six in succession. SIUE, falling to 5-3 and 1-5, sustained its fifth consecutive loss.
"Our guys battled and that's not a surprise," SIUE Head Coach Jon Harris said. "They are a very competitive group. We just need to be a little bit better to get over the hump."
Williford tried to push them in that direction. He made 10 of 17 shots, including 2 of 6 treys. Williford also converted all 11 of his free throw attempts as the Cougars went 16-for-16 from the foul line. It's the first time they did that since they made all 11 free throws against UMKC on Dec. 28, 2008.
"The points are fun," said Williford, "but the statistics aren't that important if you don't get the win. And we didn't come away with it."
SIUE made Murray State earn everything it got, Racers' Head Coach Matt McMahon said.
"It was a hard-fought, tough road game and SIUE played hard," he said. "They have good balance and their record is deceiving. Williford had a terrific performance and we couldn't guard him."
The Cougars said some of the same things about Morant, a 6-3 soph and projected top NBA selection. Morant, whose previous best was 38 points against Alabama, made all 21 of his free throws to boost his scoring. He was 8 of 17 from the field, 3 of 9 on 3-pointers, collected 11 assists and added five steals.
"It was another historic night for a special player," McMahon said of Morant.
Morant added, "I wasn't looking to settle for shots. I don't know if it's my best game, but it's near the top somewhere."
Harris pointed out: "He (Morant) has a really good pace and he takes what's there. He plays the whole game and plays the entire game with the ball in his hands."
Harris said Williford does some of the same things for the Cougars.
"He's the engine for us. When he's good, we are good and he's starting to understand that," Harris said.
Willford noted, "My job is to control the tempo and bring energy to the team."
Brandon Jackson scored 13 points and grabbed six rebounds to complement Williford's outing that included four assists and four rebounds. The Cougars made 26 of 63 shots, were 4 of 19 on 3-pointers and snagged 31 rebounds, three more than the Racers.
The Cougars, trailing 40-38 at half, got to within a point at 69-68 with 4:04 remaining, but the Racers fended them off in front of a lively crowd.
"I want to give a shout-out to the fans because the kept the atmosphere going," Williford said. His 19 first-half points ignited the Cougars, who once led 23-14.
Harris said, "I think the two games this week (including a narrow 79-71 loss to Austin Peay on Thursday) shows that we can be right there with teams in this league. We showed we can play with people."
SIUE travels to Southeast Missouri (Jan. 24) and UT Martin (Jan. 26) before returning home to play Morehead State (Jan. 31) and Eastern Kentucky (Feb. 2).