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FIVE YEARS: A few stories that have stuck with me

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Stark-1

On Dec. 18, 2017, Murray State played one of its most electric home games in recent memory, when a raucous crowd tried to rattle the visiting Auburn Tigers. Jonathan Stark (center) was pivotal in a close game, but Auburn came away with an 81-77 win.

In my five seasons at The Paducah Sun, I’ve got a lot of things that have stuck with me over the years. Buzzer- beaters. Interviews. Developing story lines. Breaking news. Terrific games. Heartbreakers.

Murray State MBB vs. Auburn: Part I

On Dec. 18, 2017, a Southeastern Conference opponent made an extremely rare appearance in Murray for a matchup with the Racers, when Bruce Pearl’s Auburn Tigers stepped on the CFSB Center court for a showdown between two hot teams.

The Tigers wound up being victors, 81-77, in one of the best back-and-forth college basketball games I’ve personally viewed, and the CFSB Center was as loud as I’ve ever heard it in my 15 years living in Calloway County.

MSU had staked itself to an early 12-2 lead by the first media timeout, thanks to two triples from Terrell Miller Jr., four points from Jalen Dupree, and a layup from a wiry freshman point guard in Ja Morant.

The 2018 OVC Player of the Year, Jonathan Stark, scored 14 points in the first six minutes of the second half — pulling the Racers to within 55-54. MSU held a slim 67-66 lead with 4:14 left to play, too, and looked poised to close — until Jared Harper buried not one, not two, but three-straight triples with a hand in his face for a 75-71 lead with 60 seconds to go.

Had Harper balked an any of those 3-point attempts, and the Racers likely claim a daunting home win against the Tigers.

Murray State-to-MVC rumors

Man, remember that time Murray State was almost headed to the Missouri Valley Conference?

That was a fun 40 days and 40 nights of hushed speculation, rampant rumors and an “almost” kind of deal that wasn’t.

A tweet from Jon Rothstein in the spring of 2017, stating both Murray State and Valparaiso were key figures in a possible expansion, served as the early catalyst for local reporters scrounging for facts on the ordeal.

A month later, MVC brass instead opted for a 10-team league, and went with the Crusaders.

There isn’t a particular moment that stems from this chapter, per se, but I spent a good chunk of that time on high alert, and was of the notion — based on several reports — that the Racers had a good chance at jumping.

Turns out I was wrong, and in hindsight, I now wonder often if a hike to “The Valley” would’ve even been a prudent move. The idea of “thinking big” exploded near the Murray State athletics department and the program’s many fans, but quietly, the cost of switching conferences — coupled with the future struggles that have come with COVID-19 — might’ve put the Racer sports budget in serious peril.

McCracken softball in 2016, 2018

When it comes to Lady Mustangs softball, there are two specific “moments” that stick with me.

That 2016 team won an unheard of 43 games, with its four losses all coming by two runs or less. Two of the defeats came at the hands of Kaylee Tow and the Madisonville-North Hopkins Lady Maroons in the regular season, and McCracken County would flip that script in an epic, 10-inning battle on June 11, 2016 — day three of the 2016 KHSAA State Tournament at Jack Fisher Park in Owensboro.

Unfortunately, loss No. 3 came in the very first game of the state slate to Louisville Male, and by the time McCracken County had forced a do-or-die against Scott County, the energy just wasn’t there, and the Cardinals escaped, 9-7, for the state crown.

It’s a team that scored 440 runs, had a ridiculous pitching staff in Audrey Dodd, Hannah Ridolfi and Jenny Chapman, and a host of talented seniors wrapped around them — creating one of the most dominant teams I’ve ever seen up close in any sport.

Skip ahead to 2018, and it’s another terrific team in Lindsey Carroll, Abby Shoulders, Lakyn Largent, and a fountain of youth springing around them.

But after opening the season with a 17-1 win over Ballard Memorial, the Lady Bombers pulled the shocking upset in the First Region semifinals, 3-2, at Murray High School. A roster of 16 upstarts, paced by a senior class in Shelby Elrod, Rianah Fields, Leah Shelley and Tara Taber proved to be just the mix needed to hand the Lady Mustangs their first-ever defeat to a First Region opponent.

Racers stun SEMO on kick return

On Nov. 10, 2018, Murray State football trailed 19th-ranked Southeast Missouri State 31-0 at Roy Stewart Stadium in Murray ... before halftime.

But the Racers would inexplicably move to 5-5 and 5-2 in conference play, courtesy of a 40-point comeback that was capped by 33 second-half points and a game-sealing kick-return touchdown from Malik Honeycutt with less than 20 seconds to play.

The Racers overcame three interceptions from quarterback Drew Anderson, and two lost fumbles, to rumble for more than 400 yards receiving and more than 130 yards on the ground. Despite the miscues, MSU generated 32 first downs and defensively stymied the Redhawks after halftime.

It’s one of the wildest football games I’ve ever seen in my life, and I must’ve rewritten the lede to my story a handful of times. When SEMO QB Daniel Santacaterina hit Zack Smith with a 5-yard TD pass with 20 seconds to go (for a 38-34 Redhawks lead), I thought, “Well, good comeback, but that’s it.”

It most definitely was not it, and was the surest proof of the old adage, “You play until the final whistle.”

Morant’s NCAA tourney triple-double

Over his two-year career at Murray State, point guard Ja Morant splashed so many highlights that have gone watched and re-watched as his star continues to rise.

His 29 points — and game-winner — in the March 8, 2019, OVC semifinal against Jacksonville State saved the Racers from a sure-fire trip to the National Invitation Tournament, and belongs near the top of the list of sports moments I’ve seen in the past half-decade.

But if there’s any Morant moment I’m putting on this list, it’s his triple-double against fifth-seeded Marquette on March 21, 2019, at the opening round of the NCAA Tournament at Hartford, Connecticut.

In the 83-64 demolition of the Golden Eagles, Morant motored to a magnificent 17 points, 16 assists and 11 rebounds — the first trip-dub in the “Big Dance” since Michigan State’s Draymond Green did it in 2012.

It was also his third triple-double of the 2018-19 season, a feat equaled by only Andre Iguodala, Hassan Whiteside, Stephane Lasme and Kyle Collinsworth in the past 20 years.

What made it so memorable for me, however, wasn’t the history, or the fact that I got an extra day or two with the WPSD crew in a cozy little Air BnB on the shores of a close-by picturesque cove, where we dined on cold pizza and black coffee late into the nights.

It was the fact that it felt like Hartford, Connecticut, was the hometown of these Racers. Even in the second-round disheartening loss to Florida State, Morant and the team received a standing ovation — a rare moment for a losing squad on a neutral floor.

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