|John Cooper's Tennessee State team got one of the biggest wins in program history tonight. (AP)|
The last time Tennessee State beat Murray State at Murray State in regulation was the 1995-96 season. That was also the last season the Tigers finished a campaign with a winning record (15-13).
Thursday night, Tennessee State not only got that ever-elusive W at Murray State, in regulation, after a 16-year wait, but the Tigers also ensured themselves of an above-.500 record. I was able to speak with TSU third-year coach John Cooper after the game. He talked and walked from the CFSB Center to the bus.
Once he got on the bus, I could tell immediately. It was quite joyous in the background, you see (as I heard). I suspect that two-hour ride from Murray, Ky., to Nashville, Tenn., didn’t dip much in volume or enthusiasm.
This could very well be the win that defines 16-10 Tennessee State’s season. Only one team every year gets the unique delight and reward of playing spoiler to the sport’s final unbeaten. Unlikely as it was, Tennessee State smashed Murray State’s undefeated hopes Thursday night with the 72-68 outcome.
Cooper said his guys didn’t need calming down. They weren’t anxious in timeout huddles and there was no need to stress about the situation at halftime, when Murray State led 40-33. The Tigers trailed most of the second half, too. That was a “benefit,” according to Cooper, who didn’t do anything outside of the ordinary in terms of prep for this game.
Same type of scouting, same type of practice, all of it to the familiar beat Cooper and his coaches have used and helped earn the team a season-best six-game winning streak.
“I’m not one of those guys where we go and do a bunch of different things. This group simply does better by staying true to what we do,” he said. Murray State star Isaiah Canaan, who had his fourth game of more than 30 points (31) got his despite State doing its best to contain him.
“We tried to guard him well and he shot the tar out of the basketball,” Cooper said. “The goal was not to let him get his and stop everyone else.”
Somewhat surprisingly, Canaan got most of his and yet Murray State couldn’t get a home win in conference. Normally, a league’s best team getting a huge performance from the league’s best player doesn’t end in an L.
Cooper was pretty measured after what is fair to call the biggest win of his young career. He took over this team in 2009 and soon found himself with only four scholarship players thanks to the exodus of transfers that can come with a program like Tennessee State losing a head coach (Cy Alexander).
“Quite frankly, we haven’t had a lot of success in recent history with our basketball program,” Cooper said. “You don’t just jump right up and beat the big boys.”
It took him six tries, but he finally got Murray State, which is the class of the Ohio Valley — the Duke or Syracuse or UCLA of that league. He's proud. I let him talk for a few minutes after asking a general question about the program. If this sounds like he's letting off steam, he wasn't. I think Cooper was affirming aloud to himself how big the win was and how long it had been since the program was so surely moving in a good direction.
“This hasn’t happened in our program in a long time. It’s just one win, though,” Cooper said. “No one has ever, once, said anything about us. I’m not knocking the media, but no one was saying anything about us, even when they (Murray State) played SEMO (Southeast Missouri State), and that’s fine. We don’t go about that like we have a chip on our shoulder. We’ve got to prove it, and rightfully so. To win like this, it’s really hard to do this.”
Hard, sure, but also a lot of fun. The party on that bus proves it.