MCGILL: Herd Defies Preseason Predictions, Secures Home Sweep
The Word on the Herd
By Chuck McGill
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – When the Conference USA preseason men’s basketball poll was unveiled in October, Middle Tennessee and UAB were at the top.
That’s certainly not outlandish by those chosen to forecast the league standings, as Middle Tennessee, with eight first-place votes, and the Blazers, with four first-place votes, have been traditional powers within the conference.
On Saturday, however, the team picked to finish seventh in the same poll – Marshall – proved it belonged in the discussion, as the Thundering Herd completed a sweep of the preseason poll’s top two teams with an 86-78 overtime win against UAB in front of 6,740 raucous fans at the Henderson Center.
“We’re getting whole,” said Jon Elmore, who recorded the sixth triple-double in program history and his season this season. “We struggled a bit with injury and sickness … we’ve got everybody back together. We’re getting back to 100 percent. We didn’t even shoot the ball great, but we locked up defensively and made some huge plays offensively. I thought the energy was phenomenal through the team and the fans.”
Elmore finished with 14 points, a team-high 12 rebounds and a game-high 10 assists, but it was the final two assists that not only etched his name in the Marshall record books once again, but put the Herd over the top in overtime.
The game was tied 76-76 at the end of regulation, and then after nearly three minutes of a field goal drought to start overtime, Elmore drove the lane and found junior forward Ajdin Penava in the left corner for a go-ahead 3-pointer that gave Marshall an 81-78 lead with 2:00 left. Fifty-seven seconds later, Elmore – one assist shy of a triple-double – found junior guard Rondale Watson for another 3, which all but sealed the Herd home win.
“That’s what happens when we have good ball movement in the offense we have,” said junior guard C.J. Burks, who scored a team-high 24 points. “Having a good point guard like we do … it all starts off with him. He comes down and gets the ball rolling, gets the ball moving, and we get open shots. When you get in the flow of things, you hit shots.”
Burks, who paced the team in scoring for the fourth consecutive game, jumpstarted the Herd offense by scoring the team’s first 11 points. He continued his ascent up the career 3-point list, going from tied at No. 20 to No. 17 in the all-time rankings. He has averaged 26.3 points in the last four games.
He was not the only one standout shooter in the game, though. Watson scored 16 points and buried four 3-pointers. Penava made 3 of 6 from beyond the arc. Jarrod West (2 of 4) and Darius George (1 of 5) also made 3s.
Marshall made 9 of 18 from beyond the arc in the first half alone, compensating for Elmore’s struggles from the field. The star junior guard from Charleston, West Virginia, finished the game 3 for 16 from the field and missed all six of his 3-point attempts, but still managed to compile enough statistics for his second triple-double in 36 days.
Hassan Whiteside, now in the NBA with the Miami Heat, and DeAndre Kane are the only other players in program history with a triple-double. Whiteside did it three times in his one season in a Herd uniform, and Kane accomplished the feat once.
“Jon’s a competitor,” Marshall coach Dan D’Antoni said. “He finds ways to contribute and make our team better. He’s a tough nut.”
Elmore surpassed 1,500 career points on his first basket of the game, and with his ninth assist of the night – the overtime pass to Penava for the go-ahead 3-pointer – Elmore became the sixth player in program history to reach 500 career assists.
The win didn’t come easy. Marshall led by 11 points, 45-34, with 28 seconds left of the first half, but a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by UAB cut the deficit to 8 points at the half. The Herd frittered away all of that during the second half, although it never trailed. The Blazers tied it at 76-76 with 24 seconds left on a layup by Chris Cokley.
But Marshall dominated in overtime, outscoring the visitors from Birmingham, 10-2. UAB missed nine of 10 shots in the extra period.
The Herd also tied a school record by making all 18 of its free throws. Only two other teams in program history had made all of its free throws, with a minimum of 10 attempts. UAB made 5 of 13 from the foul line.
“They’re capable of doing that,” D’Antoni said of his team’s performance at the line. “I don’t look at that as exceptional. They don’t surprise me with great play; I kind of expect great play.”
The league’s 12 head coaches voted in the preseason poll, and Middle Tennessee and UAB received a combined 10 first-place votes as the clear choices to win the C-USA regular season championship.
Marshall is 14-6 overall and 5-2 in league play, one game behind a three-way tie for first place between Middle Tennessee, Western Kentucky and Old Dominion. The Herd is off until Saturday, Jan. 27, when it travels to WKU for a rematch of the Hilltoppers’ 25-point win in Huntington on Jan. 6.
“Getting two in a row like that is big,” Elmore said. “Now we’ve got eyes set on Western. We know what they did to us the first time.”
NOTES: Marshall has back-to-back wins against UAB for the first time since the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons … Burks connected on four 3-pointers, giving him 113 for his career. He is now tied with Markel Humphrey for No. 17 in career 3-pointers … Elmore is now No. 16 in career scoring and No. 6 in career assists. He is one of two players (Damier Pitts) who have surpassed 1,500 career points and 500 career assists … UAB leads the all-time series 18-8.