MURRAY -- It wasn't the cleanest season opener in Murray State men's basketball history.
But when your junior point guard is averaging 19 points and six assists in the National Basketball Association, eight of your 14 players didn't play in 2018-19, and three of your top six rotation players missed 6-to-9 months due to injury in the last calendar year?
Well, then, a 69-49 Saturday night victory at the CFSB Center over the SWAC-based Southern Jaguars -- led by former Morehead State coach and defensive guru Sean Woods, no less -- isn't a bad start to the 2019-20 season.
The Racers overcame 3-for-16 shooting from the arc, 22-for-32 shooting from the charity stripe and 21 team turnovers by winning the boards battle 45-28 (including a 35-19 defensive edge) and points in the paint (36-28).
And more importantly, the Racers were staunch on defense. Southern didn't find its first basket until the 13:40 mark of the first half -- a span of 6:20 from tipoff until a layup from Osa Wilson cut the Racers' early lead to 10-2.
And the Jaguars shooting woes didn't end there. Southern didn't make its first 3-pointer until the 15:07 mark of the second half, when Amel Kuljuhovic's triple answered back-to-back bombs from sophomore Tevin Brown (17 points, five rebounds) and cut MSU's lead to 38-24.
They'd finish 3-for-22 from the arc (13.6%).
But MSU had its own scoring drought, too. The Racers held a 12-2 lead with 13:40 left in the first half before going 6:05 without a basket and eight turnovers in that stretch.
"Keep guarding," noted fifth-year MSU coach Matt McMahon, about the drought. "Keep guarding. We started off 10-0. Got off to the great start, and execution was great on both ends of the floor. And then I think the score was 12-2 for about a half hour, and then 12-4 for another half hour. Obviously we were trying to fix some things offensively, but at the same time, I didn't want to lose our defensive focus and intensity, because I thought that was very good."
MSU sophomore forward KJ Williams finished with a double-double (15 points, 11 rebounds), while senior Anthony Smith added 10 points and seven boards.
But when senior forward Darnell Cowart touched the floor at the 14:27 mark of the first half, fans in the CFSB Center gave him a warm welcome. He missed the entire summer exhibition in the Bahamas, and didn't suit up for MSU's first dalliance into this season in last week's exhibition matchup against Martin Methodist.
He'd finish with five points, three rebounds and five fouls drawn in 11:10 of action, as he continues to work back into the rotation.
"Nell is a big part of our team," noted Williams. "He shows great leadership to our bigs and toward the whole team. He's a great player both on and off the court. He helps us throughout the scouting and practice."
MURRAY STATE 69, SOUTHERN 49
Jaguars 17 32 - 49
Racers 30 39 - 69
JAGUARS (1-1): Montese Blake 13, Darius Williams 7, Amel Kuljuhovic 7, Ashante Shivers 5, Osa Wilson 5, Jayden Saddler 4, Micah Bradford 4, Skyler Baggs 2, Damiree Burns 2.
FG 19-61. 3PT 3-22 (Shivers, Kuljuhovic, Blake). FT 8-11. Reb: 28. PF: 28. Ast: 6. TO: 14.
RACERS (1-0): Tevin Brown 17, KJ Williams 15, Anthony Smith 10, Chico Carter Jr. 9, Darnell Cowart 5, DaQuan Smith 5, Jaiveon Eaves 5, Devin Gilmore 3.
FG 22-48. 3PT 3-16 (Brown 2, D. Smith). FT 22-32. Reb: 45. PF: 16. Ast: 13. TO: 21.