LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Guard Isaiah Canaan gathered his teammates Saturday afternoon outside the Murray State locker room. "It's just another game," Canaan told the team. The implication: In a run-of-the-mill contest involving two baskets and a 94-foot court, the Racers would walk off winners -- just as they had 31 other times this season.
But Marquette-Murray State wasn't just another game. It was a hair-raising, nail-biting, simmering cauldron of sweat. The Golden Eagles and Murray Racers played as if the loser would have to be dragged from the court. The field-goal percentages (38.2 and 31.3 percent, respectively) weren't pretty, but the teeth-rattling screens, the not-in-my-house blocks and the smothering defense were beautiful.
Until Marquette guard Jae Crowder hit a three-pointer with 4:09 remaining to put the Golden Eagles up six, neither team had trailed by more than five. Marquette and Murray State had see-sawed into the night until the Racers finally ran out of the magic that had sustained them through a historic season. Marquette guard Vander Blue -- his ribs aching after he was flattened by a legal and brutal Ed Daniel screen as the Racers scrambled to close the gap -- sank a final free throw to give the Golden Eagles a 62-53 win that sent Marquette back to the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive season.
"Can I take a nap now?" exhausted Marquette coach Buzz Williams joked at the conclusion of his postgame press conference.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Marquette run that finally knocked out the Racers was the fact that it was a response to a Murray State run. With the teams matching one another blow for blow, any sustained success seemed capable of tipping the balance. When Jewuan Long scored to cap a 7-0 run that gave Murray State a 46-41 lead, the momentum seemed firmly with the Racers. Shots had finally fallen in rapid succession, and the first Sweet 16 trip in Murray State history seemed close enough to touch.
"I'm just so sick right now just because... just reliving the last seven minutes," Murray State coach Steve Prohm said. "We were so good right there for a minute. We were up 46-41. We were really guarding. And then I'm just trying to figure out... They raised it up a level, I'm sure."
The Golden Eagles, hardened through an offseason of joyous torture from strength coach Todd Smith, absorbed Murray State's haymaker and began jabbing. "A regular team," Crowder said, "they could have broken at that point."
A layup by backup forward Davante Gardner gave Marquette a 47-46 lead. Gardner, who had to stretch his bum knee during periods on the bench, then added two free throws and another layup. Marquette led by three when Long came careening toward the basket. What happened next is a matter of debate. The official nearest the play saw Long plow into Crowder and immediately called a charge. Subsequent replays appeared to show that Crowder was still shuffling his feet when Long made contact. "I think I was there," Crowder said.
The call gave Marquette the ball. Crowder, who had made only 23.3 percent of his three-point attempts in his previous five games and who had missed all four of his three-point attempts Saturday, rose and drilled a three to finally stretch someone's lead past five.
Crowder, the Big East player of the year, finished with 17 points and 13 rebounds. His Murray State counterpart, Daniel, scored six points and grabbed 14 rebounds. Afterward, a stone-faced Daniel sat in his locker and made no excuses. Marquette and Murray State had played the same game, but Marquette had played it better. "I can't be mad about what happened," Daniel said.
When the shock of the loss wears off for the Racers, they'll be able to look back on this season and smile. They caught the nation's attention by winning their first 23 games, and in a round-of-64 throttling of Colorado State, they looked better than the No. 6 seed the selection committee had handed them. Canaan, who scored a team-high 16 on 4-of-17 shooting Saturday, has appeared on multiple All-America teams.
Prohm dreads the thought of saying goodbye to seniors Long, Donte Pool and Ivan Aska, but he believes they have left Murray State's program in a better place. "I've never seen anything like it at any of the programs that I've ever been, how they represented our program, the university, the community, how they interacted with everybody, how they gave back," Prohm said. "These three seniors are first class. We just want to continue to recruit more kids like them. And if we can do that, we'll get to the Sweet 16 and further."
The Golden Eagles were determined to reach the Sweet 16 this year. Just before the second half began, point guard Junior Cadougan approached Crowder. "He said, 'now or never.' I knew exactly what he meant," Crowder said. "I knew exactly how he felt."
After they took Murray State's best shot and hammered back to win, Williams climbed into the stands to hug his wife, Corey. "You've got to be a lion chaser to be married to me," Williams said. "She's tougher than all them kids we play with."
Meanwhile, the Racers trudged single-file into their locker room. Waiting with his team to take the floor for the next game, Kentucky guard Doron Lamb watched and shook his head. "I know that feeling," Lamb said.
For Lamb, the feeling came last year in Houston after a loss to Connecticut in a national semifinal. There, he learned the same universal truth of the NCAA tournament that many of the Racers learned Saturday. Sixty-seven teams always leave the court unhappy.
Even the ones who played hard enough to win.