Joe Murphy, Special to the Sun
Friday, Feb. 10, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Murray State guard Donte Poole remembers playing basketball games in front of 500 or less fans. He remembers how few media, if any, covered the games.
That’s far from the case this winter. And Poole, a graduate of Mojave High in North Las Vegas, is typically one of the main attractions for the Racers.
The 6-foot-3 senior is having the best season of his four-year career in averaging 14.2 points per game, thriving under first-year coach Steve Prohm in helping No. 9-ranked Murray State (23-1) be the last unbeaten team in the nation. The Racers' undefeated streak was snapped Thursday in a 72-68 loss to Tennessee State.
The team from Murray, Ky., which plays in the Ohio Valley Conference, is having the type of season you would expect from powers such as North Carolina or Kentucky.
This week alone, Poole has been interviewed by crews from ESPN’s College Gameday and CNN, both of which have made the unlikely stop in Murray to document the success.
“So many people look at what we are doing and want to know the story behind it,” he said Wednesday. “It’s a great feeling. You always dream of having a dream season. For us, that dream is staying perfect.”
Poole, who averaged just 4.6 points per game last year, has excelled with the freedoms in Prohm’s system and transformed into a confident player. “Donte, he’s so good with his hands,” Prohm told the Murray Ledger this season. “When he’s locked in defensively, he’s a really versatile guy for us.”
Poole is averaging 3.5 rebounds and two steals per game, and is shooting 85 percent from the free-throw line. He scored a career-high 28 points last month against Tennessee Tech and netted 20 points in a win against then-No. 20 Memphis.
“I spent a lot of time in the gym this past summer,” Poole said. “We got a brand new coaching staff and those guys believe in me. That’s given me confidence.”
As the team has risen in the rankings each week, so has the intensity level of its opponents. Games, routinely sold-out these days, are being shown on national television and each team is looking to make its season by knocking Murray State from the ranks of the unbeaten. Last Saturday, for instance, the Racers had to rally at Tennessee-Martin (3-22 overall) for a 65-58 victory.
“Last year, there would be 500 or so fans watching us at some schools,” Poole said. “Now they are selling out the place with 5,500 to 6,000 fans. Everyone is giving us their best effort every night.”
This isn’t Poole’s first brush in the national spotlight.
During his sophomore season of 2010, Murray State won the Ohio Valley tournament and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Seeded 13th, Murray State shocked Vanderbilt on a buzzer-beater for the program’s second ever tournament win, giving Poole a memory he’ll never forget.
And, one he would love to duplicate this year.
“That was just an incredible experience. Everyone wants to play in that tournament and win a game,” Poole said. “Just like that year, we have so much to prove. Everyone is curious as to how we’ll hold up (against better competition) and the tournament will be our chance.”
Murray State lost to Butler in its 2010 second-round tournament game, and Butler eventually advanced to the national championship game. Murray State led at halftime by five points, but couldn’t hold on.
“You naturally think about losing that game,” Poole said. “But give credit to Butler. They didn’t turn the ball over and we did. They made their free throws and we didn’t.”
It wasn’t the first time Poole was on the short end of a tough loss.
During his senior season at Mojave, Poole averaged 21.6 points, seven rebounds and four assists per game in leading the Rattlers to the large-school state championship game — where they narrowly lost to Northern Nevada’s Galena High.
UNLV guard Anthony Marshall was a sophomore on the team and remains close friends with Poole. The two often exchange text messages and talk on Twitter.
“For him to get the success he’s getting and the recognition he’s getting, he deserves it,” Marshall said. “I’m just happy for him. At the beginning of the season, we both were struggling with our games and our shooting and stuff like that. We just talked to each other about it, comforted each other and stuff like that. Told each other to stick with it.”
Poole was lightly recruited out of Mojave, initially committing to Colorado State but spending one season at Sound Doctrine Christian Academy to work on academics. He reopened his recruitment at the academy, picking Murray State over Ball State, Northern Iowa at others.
It turned out to be the best decision of his life.
“I’m living a dream. I really am,” he said.