DAYTON, Ohio (AP) – In the gloom of a quiet locker room after a painful NCAA tournament loss, Coach Mike Davis told his Texas Southern players to hold their heads up high.
Aaric Murray scored 38 points, but the Tigers fell behind by 14 points in the first half and could never make up the difference in an 81-69 loss to Cal Poly on Wednesday night in the First Four.
The Mustangs (14-20) became the first team with 19 losses to win an NCAA game in 59 years.
The Tigers (19-15) had to be content with their first trip into the brightest spotlight since 2003.
“My speech to our boys was just be down and disappointed tonight, but when you walk out of the locker room and the hotel tomorrow, feel proud and feel a sense of accomplishments because there’s a lot of teams not playing,” said Davis. “And we played in the NCAA tournament this year.”
Murray was the top player on the court, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers. Originally a blue-chip recruit for La Salle, he left there for West Virginia where he was dismissed from the team. In his final year of eligibility for Texas Southern, he had 28 points against Stanford, 30 against Tulsa and 48 against Temple in his return home to Philadelphia.
Murray ended up 14 of 23 from the field, 3 of 5 behind the arc and a perfect 7 for 7 at the line despite sitting out several minutes with foul trouble.
Instead of focusing on the defeat, he chose to think about how far his team had come this year. The Tigers qualified for the NCAAs by winning their last nine games, including rolling through the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament.
“We made it to the NCAA tournament. We had a great season,” he said. “We won our conference. So (Coach Davis) just told us to hold our heads up and don’t be pouting about losing because there were a lot of teams who weren’t playing at all today.”
Cal Poly dominated most of the first half to build a 12-point lead at the break and never let it go.
Battling injuries all year, the Mustangs were deeper and healthier than they had been all season. Their bench supplied 29 points, including 16 critical points in the opening half.
Trailing 17-16 after a Murray 3 which gave him 11 quick points, Cal Poly took the lead for good on sub Brian Bennett‘s slashing move to the hoop. After a Texas Southern miss, Bennett scored again on a 14-foot jumper. Those two baskets keyed a 16-7 burst for a 32-24 lead that the Mustangs would not relinquish.
Texas Southern, now 0-5 in the NCAA tournament, cut the lead to 73-66 with 2:16 left, but the Mustangs hit 8 of 10 fouls shots over the last 1:42 to seal the deal.
Jose Rodriguez, who added 14 points, was unhappy with the loss but appreciative of the chance to play in the college sport’s biggest event.
“A lot of teams don’t get this opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament,” he said. “A lot of people are home right now watching us. So it was a great opportunity.”
Chris Eversley had 19 points, David Nwaba 17 and Bennett – who was a perfect 5 for 5 from the field – added 10 for Cal Poly. The only other 19-loss team to win was Bradley (7-19), which won a game but lost in the final eight in 1955.
The Mustangs came in shooting 41 percent from the field for the season but made 57 percent (29 of 51) in the program’s NCAA debut.
Davis, who also led Indiana and UAB to the big tournament, preferred to credit Cal Poly and look at what his team had accomplished.
“Any time you make the NCAA tournament, that’s history,” he said. “Your name will go down as the team who made it.”
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AP-WF 3/19/2014 12:08