SAN JOSE — Murray State coach Billy Kennedy went with his gut and drew up a play his team had never run before, with Isacc Miles the go-to guy at the end.
Third option Danero Thomas became the hero instead.
Thomas hit a 15-footer as the buzzer sounded and 13th-seeded Murray State stunned No. 4 seed Vanderbilt 66-65 on Thursday in an NCAA tournament opener in the West Regional.
“That shot was bigger than he could imagine,” Murray State’s B.J. Jenkins said. “It wasn’t just a game-winning shot. We’ll remember this for the rest of our lives.”
President Barack Obama must have been onto something picking these revved-up Racers (31-4) to get past the first round. It was the school’s first victory in the NCAA tournament since a 78-75 win over North Carolina State in 1988.
For the second time in as many appearances, Vanderbilt (24-9) bowed out early as the higher seed. The Commodores were also a first-round upset victim by Siena in 2008 when seeded fourth.
Murray State, the mid-major that came in with a dismal 1-13 all-time NCAA tournament record, will play again Saturday at HP Pavilion against Butler after it beat UTEP 77-59.
Jermaine Beal made two free throws with 12.7 seconds left to give Vandy the lead. B.J. Jenkins missed a rushed 3-pointer on the other end, but the ball went out of bounds off a Vanderbilt player with 4.2 seconds left to give Murray State the final shot.
When it went down, Murray State’s players sprinted to the other end of the floor and fell into a celebratory pile beneath the basket. Vandy star A.J. Ogilvy slumped to the floor in defeat, while his teammates crouched near their bench in utter disbelief.
“This is probably the biggest shot I’ve ever hit in my life,” said Thomas, who wound up with 11 points, six rebounds, three steals and three blocked shots. “It felt so good, I knew it was going in.”
Vandy knew it could happen. The Commodores have been in this tough position before.
“This is what happens in March Madness,” freshman guard John Jenkins said. “I didn’t think it was going to happen and I had no doubt we were going to win that game. We had a hand in his face, and it was a tough shot.”
B.J. Jenkins hit a key 3-pointer with 2:51 to play and finished with 14 points and five assists, and Miles scored 17 for the Racers, who shot 7 for 15 from long range and crashed the offensive glass to create second chances. They held a 39-33 rebounding advantage — 15 of those offensive boards.
The Commodores were set on repeating their special March run in California from 2007, when they reached the regional with a 78-74, double-overtime win over Washington State in the second round two hours northeast in Sacramento.
Vanderbilt used a 7-0 burst to build a 60-56 lead with 3:46 left this time, getting five straight points from John Jenkins. Isaiah Canaan and B.J. Jenkins then hit consecutive 3s for Murray State to regain the lead.
Vandy’s Festus Ezeli missed a pair of free throws off the front of the rim with 2:28 remaining — and the misses proved costly.
No Vanderbilt player reached double digits until Beal ha 10 points with 17:21 left. He didn’t score again until making the late free throws, finishing with 12. John Jenkins scored 13 and Ogilvy had 12 points and six rebounds.
B.J. Jenkins, who banged his right elbow on the floor early in the game, showed no effects from slicing the index finger on his non-shooting hand while cutting down the net from the Ohio Valley Conference tournament. He shot 6 for 14 and made two 3s.
Miles, the one-time Creighton player who played for that school in the 2007 NCAAs as a freshman, has given Murray State a big lift — not to mention a place on the national map.
Many joined President Obama in choosing Murray State in their brackets.
“They can say it was an upset, but we’ve got a good team,” Kennedy said. “They’re a very good team. We’ve got good toughness and good character. It definitely wasn’t about a coach drawing up a great play. It just goes by what the feel is. I wanted to put it in Isacc Miles’ hands because I trust him to make plays.”