Jun Murdock (JR/Wichita, Kan.) is always good when he steps on a basketball court as evidenced by the fact he was an NAIA Honorable Mention All-American last season.
Some nights, though, he’s better than good and on occasions soars above sensational. Tuesday was one of those games.
Murdock, Kansas Wesleyan irrepressible point guard, scored a game-high 26 points, grabbed six rebounds and had four assists and two steals in leading the No. 24 Coyotes to a tense and hard-fought 82-78 Kansas Conference victory over a pesky Friends team inside Mabee Arena.
Murdock was 7 of 17 shooting and 10 of 10 at the free throw line while playing just under 37 minutes.
“He was huge,” coach Anthony Monson said Murdock, who transferred to KWU from Friends after his freshman season in 2019. “It was good to see him knock down his free throws, that’s been an area of struggle for him. He won’t tell you but when he plays Friends I’m sure there’s a little extra motivation with him.”
KWU improved to 6-0, 3-0 in conference play while Friends dropped to 1-7 and 0-2.
The Coyotes were without starting forward Alex Littlejohn (SO/Newton, Kan.), the team’s top rebounder and second-leading scorer who was at home with an illness.
In his absence KWU got mammoth second half contributions from guards Easton Hunter (JR/Colwich, Kan.) and Izaiah Hale (SO/Wichita, Kan.) as they rallied from a seven-point deficit. Hunter scored all 16 of his points the final 20 minutes and Hale came off the bench and scored seven pivotal points the final 3: 50.
“(Hunter) had a different look about him (the second half),” Monson said. “He had that look of ‘guys, we’re not going to lose this game.’ Izaiah knocked down a couple of big buckets and some free throws down the stretch.
“When you lose guys that are important, starters and things like that, guys have to step up and make plays and we had some guys do it for us tonight.”
KWU trailed 40-35 at halftime and was down 42-35 just 23 seconds into the second half before rallying.
A 7-0 run gave the Coyotes a 66-60 lead with 6:43 left but Friends quickly got back in it five straight points and trailed 66-65 with 6 minutes left.
Seven consecutive points gave KWU a 73-66 advantage but the Falcons answered once against with seven points of their own trailed 73-72 with 2½ minutes left.
Leading 73-72, Hale made a 3-pointer and two free throws that gave the Coyotes a 78-72 advantage with 27 seconds remaining but Friends made it interesting again as Ian Konek hit a 3-pointer with 18 seconds left making it 78-75.
Murdock was fouled before the inbounds pass and made two free throws but Konek was fouled on a 3-point attempt and made all three foul shots slicing the Coyotes’ lead to 80-78 with 11.4 seconds left.
Marcel Dean (JR/Tucson, Ariz.) finally sealed the deal with two free throws with 11.1 seconds left and Friends missed a desperation 3-pointer.
“They came out and played hard,” Murdock said of the Falcons. “They had a lot of energy and they made it tough for us. We had to dig ourselves out of a hole.”
“They got a lot of confidence early on,” he said. “We let them hit some shots and were lackadaisical on some things. I told they guys before the game ‘they’re down and out right now and looking for anything.’ We gave them a whole bucket of things to feel good about in the first half.
“We came in and regrouped (at halftime) and had to slug it out in the second half.”
Friends shot 42 percent from the field (29 of 69), was 9 of 22 from 3-point range, 11 of 15 at the free throw line and had 12 turnovers. Kee’on Hutton scored 19 and Konek 17.
“We played good defense at times but I don’t feel like we were locked in the whole time,” Murdock said. “The second half we started to lock down and we hit some free throws.”
He was especially pleased with Hunter and Hale’s work.
“(Hale) is my brother for real,” he said. “The confidence we have in him and he has in himself is amazing. I told (Hunter) he needs to be aggressive all the time and we want him to do that, we want him to have that confidence in himself too.”
Wesleyan shot 39 percent (25 of 64), was 8 of 27 from deep and 24 of 27 at the line. The Coyotes outrebounded Friends 43-37 led by Thurbil Bile (JR/Centennial, Colo.) with nine. Bile also blocked four shots and had three steals.
“Sometimes things aren’t pretty, they’re not easy but you’ve got to find a way to battle and compete on a nightly basis and pull these games out,” Monson said. “You just find a way to win and that’s what we did.”