C-USA tourney memorable for the Thundering Herd

March 12, 2018 GMT

FRISCO, Texas – Marshall’s Thundering Herd proved it is difficult to beat a team three times in a season.

Marshall turned the tables on Western Kentucky University in the Conference USA men’s basketball championship game Saturday night after losing twice to the Hilltoppers in the regular season and is back in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 31 years after posting a 67-66 triumph in the Ford Center at the Star.

The Herd’s last NCAA tournament appearance was in 1987 as the Southern Conference champion,

“We’re not just fighting for wins, we’re fighting to win the whole thing,” Marshall guard Jon Elmore, the tournament Most Valuable Player said. “That’s our mentality moving forward and we’re not done yet.”

Marshall (24-10) was seeded fourth in the tournament and moved past fifth-seeded UTSA (95-81) and ninth-seeded Southern Miss (85-75) to make the championship game for the second consecutive season. Middle Tennessee beat Marshall for the title in 2017, but the second time was different.

The Herd was prepared to host a CollegeInsider.com Tournament home game Monday if it didn’t get in the NCAA tournament or National Invitation Tournament.

Head coach Dan D’Antoni, a Marshall Athletic Hall of Fame member, is the first to guide the Herd into the Big Dance since the late Rick Huckabay in 1987. Marshall has been to the NCAA tournament five times without winning a game.

“These kids got it done,” D’Antoni said. “It means a lot to me, and I know it means a lot to them.”

Elmore, the C-USA scoring champion with a 22.6 average, put on a long distance shooting display in the second half to finish with 27 points. The 6-foot-3 junior had seven

points and one 3-point field goal at halftime when Marshall had a 34-31 lead. He fired in six more 3-pointers after halftime, several of them from extra long range. His final 3-pointer put Marshall ahead, 67-55, with 3:40 left in the game.

His final tally was 9-for 21 field goal shooting, 7-for-13 on 3-point attempts and 2-for-2 at the foul line. He also had four rebounds and six assists.

“Give Elmore some credit,” WKU head coach Rick Stansbury said. “They only shot 36 percent and we our-rebounded them by 10. They were deep shots, shots you don’t shoot sometimes.”

Marshall head coach Dan D’Antoni’s smack-talking from the bench fired Elmore up, he said. D’Antoni was saying things such as ‘What are you doing out there? Are you lost?’ Elmore said.

Third-seeded Western Kentucky (24-10) quickly erased most of the Herd’s 12-point edge.

The Hilltoppers fed 6-9 Dwight Coleby for a dunk, the Hilltoppers made some foul shots, guard Darius Thompson scored a basket and 6-7 Justin Johnson made one of his four 3-pointers to cap an 11-0 run that reduced the deficit to 67-66 with 1:06 remaining,

D’Antoni joked about having his brother, NBA Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni, in a court-side seat.

“Normally, he can’t watch my games because he gets too nervous,” Marshall’s coach said. “He was sitting over there and had his legs crossed and we were up 12 so I told my team let’s take it down to one and make him squirm. We went down to one and I thought he was going to throw up over there and I said, ‘OK Jon (Elmore) let’s pull it out.’”

After the Herd’s C.J. Burks missed a 3-point shot, the Hilltoppers called a time out at 39 seconds left. Johnson missed a jump shot and Marshall’s Jarrod West def lected the rebound out of bounds with just 12 seconds left. The Hilltoppers put the ball in play again with 20 seconds left, Lamonte Bearden’s miss with 12 seconds to go was rebounded by Herd forward Jannson Williams who called a timeout and only seven seconds remained.

When the final seconds ticked off, some of the Herd’s 80 or so fans in the crowd joined the celebration on the court. D’Antoni walked across the floor to where his brother was seated and they hugged.

Herd players put on the traditional championship T-shirts and ball caps for the trophy presentation and then cut down the nets.

Elmore’s seven 3-point baskets were a C-USA championship game record. He earned the M|VP award with threegame averages of 22.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 5.3 assists.

Penava also made the all tournament team with 16 points, nine rebounds and two blocked shots

Freshman forwards Williams and Darius George played big. Williams scored eight, grabbed nine rebounds and blocked two shots. George had seven points, seven rebounds and one steal.

For Western Kentucky, Johnson (21 points, 12 rebounds) and Darius Thompson (11 points) both made all-tournament.