MURRAY — Led by an unstoppable third-quarter version of sophomore Grant Whitaker, the Murray High Tigers advanced to the second round of the First Region Tournament over Mayfield 61-46 Monday night at Murray State University’s CFSB Center. The Tiger guard poured in 14 points in the quarter, as his incendiary play ignited Murray to pull away from Mayfield in the second half.
Murray (16-7) has rolled through the final part of its season winning six of their last seven and nine of their last 11 games, and by their body language early on, seemingly expected the Cardinals (11-9) to roll over similarly to the 24-point thumping they handed them 17 days ago. Mayfield wasn’t having it, though, and brought the fight to the Tigers early, starting strong out of the gate and racing to an early 11-4 lead thanks to Cardinal leading-scorer and senior guard Colby Kennemore’s singlehandedly outscoring everybody that got off the Tiger bus 5-4 in the opening period. The Tigers looked confused as to how to attack offensively and when they did, the layups and long balls weren’t dropping, to the tune of 20% shooting on 2-of-10 from the floor and listless play from the whole team. Mayfield led 11-4 at the end of the opening period.
“I just think we were overthinking it,” said Murray Head Coach Dior Curtis. “We prepare for all situations. Kudos to Coach Croft. He came out with a game plan, his guys really believed in that game plan, and once we started to hit some shots it was tough for them to guard us at that point in time.”
Junior guard Charqwan McCallister sparked the Tigers somewhat in the second quarter with seven of his 16 points on the night with the rest of the Tigers still lacking energy, but they rallied enough to close the gap to 21-19 at the halftime break, thanks to a McCallister 3-pointer from the right side and his drive-and-dish assist to sophomore forward Lincoln English on the left-side low block near the halftime buzzer to cut the Cardinal lead to one point, to finish a 5-1 run to end the half down 21-19.
“I told the guys these kind of games are going to happen,” Curtis said. “It’s tournament time, you’re not going to always play your best, but we’ve got to pick it up. We’re only down two points 21-19; we felt like we were in a really good space right then. We just needed to clean up some things offensively and we will be fine.”
And the Tigers answered their coach by exploding out of the locker room. The dynamic duo of Whitaker and McCallister scored 19 of Murray’s 22 points in the quarter, highlighted by Whitaker’s fake left-jab step from the right side and stepback three-ball over the Cardinal defense thanks to a senior forward Dijon Miles’ screen up top to give Murray their first lead at 22-21 just over a minute into the second half. After some basket-trading, senior guard Gabe Taylor hit an important three-pointer for the Tigers to start a 10-0 run with 4:40 left, to tie the game at 27 and race the Tigers ahead to a 34-27 lead. Murray would slowly and methodically end the Cardinals’ season from there on out as they finished the game respectably at the free-throw line 13-for-18 the rest of the way, outscoring Mayfield 42-25 in the second half. They also hit just over 50% for the game from the floor, both inside and outside the three-point line. Curtis also changed up his defense to a 2-2-1 in the halfcourt, which helped stymie the Mayfield offensive attack.
“We felt like we wanted to change it up a little bit,” Curtis said. “We were playing primarily man and they were trying to post us and do some physical things to us. We wanted to switch up the defense on them and give them a different look.”
Forward Trey Boggess produced his hard-hat, lunch pail line once again for the Tigers. The junior proffered eight points with six rebounds and two assists, but more impressively, hit big shots sporadically throughout the game. He finished a perfect 3-for-3 from the floor; two baskets inside the arc and one from beyond. Taylor pitched in five points, along with English’s aforementioned two and freshman center Zavion Carman had a point for Murray.
The Tigers’ second round opponent in the regional, the Paducah Tilghman Blue Tornado (18-5), defeated Carlisle County in the previous matchup in the same arena Monday night. Murray beat Tilghman 56-52 in a great game back on Jan. 19, and this one should be another exciting contest, as the game will feature Whitaker and the Tigers squaring off against another of the region’s best players, Tilghman senior guard Eli Brown, who was averaging 16.9 points entering the evening. The teams will matchup at at 5:30 p.m. Friday back at the CFSB Center.