(Photo by Andrew Brown, MTSU, Sidelines)
In what was one of the best conference tournament finales in the country, the Marshall Thundering Herd earned their first bid to the NCAA Tournament since 1987 by defeating the third-seeded Western Kentucky Hilltoppers in a 67-66 thriller.
For Marshall, this capped off a wild March that changed the entire course of their season. On March 1st, slightly over a week ago, the Herd suffered a beatdown at the hands of UAB on the road by a score of 91-77 for their sixth loss of the conference season. Just like that, they were fighting for the fourth seed in the C-USA Tournament with UTSA. All Marshall had to do, was beat the 24th ranked Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders on the road on Senior Night.
Despite the daunting task of taking on the conference’s hottest team, they marched into Murphy Center and slayed the dragon, doing what no other team in the conference has done in more than a year, beating Middle Tennessee on the road.
The win clinched a first round bye for the Herd where they were set up to play UTSA in the quarterfinals. After taking care of UTSA, Marshall defeated Southern Miss one night after the Golden Eagles pulled off the shocker of the conference tournament by taking down MTSU.
Marshall continued their hot play and adequately responded to every run that Southern Miss threw at them en route to an 85-75 win to send them to the C-USA Championship for the second straight season.
And just like that, Marshall went from battling for the four-seed in the conference tournament and rebounding from a beatdown in Birmingham to a shot at a conference championship and an NCAA Tournament birth in a little over a week. But in that title game stood Western Kentucky. Not only would Marshall have to overcome the demons of failure following last seasons’ 83-72 championship game loss to Middle Tennessee, but they would have to do something they haven’t done all season long, defeat the Hilltoppers.
WKU owned the Herd all season long and looked like an NCAA Tournament team all season long, collecting wins against teams like Purdue and SMU. This same WKU team marched into Huntington, West Virginia on January 6th and was handed a nasty 25-point defeat in which Darius Thompson went bananas and recorded a triple-double (33 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists). In the second matchup, the Hilltoppers dominated the Herd once more, winning by a score of 85-74 and making WKU’s average margin of victory against the Herd a whopping 18 points per game.
With the odds stacked against them going into the C-USA Championship, Marshall came out swinging. Junior forward Ajdin Penava knocked down two three-pointers to give Marshall an early 6-5 lead and set a three-point shooting precedent that shaped the rest of the game.
Both teams exchanged blows and leads, tying the game eight different times and exchanging the lead on nine different occasions. But with 3:19 left in the half, Junior guard and first team All-Conference selection Jon Elmore finally connected on his first three-pointer of the game to give Marshall a 32-31 lead. Before that first three-pointer, Elmore only made one of his first five shots from the field and scored only four points.
With a 34-31 lead going into the second half, Elmore stepped up and went into full human torch mode. Elmore proceeded to knock down three after three and every shot he threw up seemed to find the bottom of the net. It was simply one of those nights where Elmore stepped up and put his team on his shoulders and went on a scoring rampage that clearly got under the skin of WKU.
Following an Elmore three-pointer where he crosses half-court line, sizes up Western Kentucky freshman Taveion Hollingsworth, takes a couple dribbles to the left, pulls up from way beyond the perimeter on the left wing, and buries his sixth three-pointer of the half (yes, you read that correctly), WKU’s Lamonte Bearden stands up on the bench and spikes his towel in frustration. Bearden looks at the end of the bench and screams “Someone guard this motherf*cker!”.
But even when he was guarded heavily, sometimes even double teamed, Elmore was knocking down shots from Steph Curry range and simply could not be guarded.
Marshall built a 12-point lead after Elmore’s seventh three-pointer of the game, taking full control by a score of 67-55 with only 3:40 remaining. But just like they had to endure against Southern Miss in the semi-finals, the Herd would have to fight off one final run from WKU. Led by four points from athletic guard freshman Josh Anderson, a pair of free throws from Bearden, a jump shot from Thompson, and a three-pointer from First Team All-Conference selection Justin Johnson, the Hilltoppers fought right back into contention. Trailing by only one point with 15 seconds remaining, WKU had one last chance to win the conference title.
Bearden drove into the lane, shot a floater from 15-feet, and the ball rolls around the rim. Anderson flew around the rim and was unable to complete the tip-in. After Jannson Williams corralled the rebound and was fouled, Marshall played keep away in the final seven seconds to secure the 2018 C-USA championship.
Elmore drowns demons from last seasons’ title game.
In last years’ title game, Elmore was unable to get his team over the hump, scoring only 12 points and not making enough plays down the stretch as MTSU standout shooting guard Giddy Potts hung 30 on the Herd to clinch a conference title.
“We talked about it before the season started this year,” Elmore said in regards to trying to avenge their championship loss last season. “We just talked about the feeling in the locker room. Everybody’s heads were down, people were crying and you could hear a pin drop in there…but this year we earned. We fought all year long, we had our up and down moments, coach got onto us a little bit but this is phenomenal for our school.”
This year, Elmore completely flipped the script in Frisco. The junior shooting guard from Charleston, West Virginia scored 27 points on 7-13 shooting from downtown, six of which came in the second half. For Elmore, he woke up and carried the load for his team when Head Coach Dan D’Antoni lit a fire into him.
“Coach was just kind of smack talking me a little bit, telling me I kind of looked lost to fire me up so credit to him,” Elmore said. “My teammates have all had confidence in me all year long, my shot has been up and down but it has gotten better at the end of the year.”
C-USA Player of the Year snub motivated Elmore.
In the post game press conference, I asked Elmore whether or not the media and coaches selecting MTSU’s Nick King to become the conference player of the year made him play with an added chip on his shoulder.
“I did man,” Elmore responded. “Shoutout to Nick King, he’s a heck of a player and a great dude…but I felt like on some of those awards we were disrespected as a team. I’ll rest my case because we are hoisting the trophy. Big shoutout to all of the voters because you all motivated us.”
D’Antoni adds brings back championship to his alma mater.
This conference title was not only special for the school and the city of Huntington, West Virginia, but it was special for coach D’Antoni. With his brother, Mike, sitting court side, D’Antoni pulled off one of the greatest and most sentimental coaching victories of his career.
As a Marshall graduate, this win represented the rise of a program from the ashes and from the shadow of being considered a “football school”. In his fourth season, the fruits of D’Antoni’s labor have helped bring a school that he once played for and for a state that he grew up in, a championship it will remember forever and a program that is on the rise in Conference USA.
D’Antoni and the Marshall basketball program were also affected by the tragic plane crash in 1970 that took the life of the Marshall football team, coaches, boosters, and flight crew.
“A lot of people think the plane crash just affected the football team,” D’Antoni said. “But a lot of the basketball team’s biggest supporters were on that flight. I lost a very close friend, Dr. Hagley and his wife, and they always wanted me to coach at Marshall…that’s a lot of what it meant to me.”