BOGACZYK: Defense First as Herd Cooks Rice
Herd holds Rice to C-USA season-low shooting percentage
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - For Dan D'Antoni's Marshall basketball team, it all started and ended with D.
From an early eight-point deficit, the Thundering Herd got a display of distribution from the coach's rotation, the usual double-double from Ryan Taylor and a dunk from three-point specialist Austin Loop.
Those items weren't the main ingredients in the Herd's third Conference USA win in the last four games, a 69-55 Henderson Center victory over Rice on Thursday night.
"It might have been the best defense we've played," said Loop after Marshall (7-16, 3-7) limited the Owls to a .364 shooting percentage, the low against Marshall in 10 C-USA games. "We've been playing good defense the last few games, really.
"We've won three of the last four, and the one we lost at Louisiana Tech, they scored 26 points off turnovers. In the halfcourt, they didn't score on us that much. Our defense is pretty solid, and it feels like it's getting better every game. When we get stops, we're going to score because it gives us energy."
Rice (6-15, 3-6) took a quick 11-3 lead as the Herd - which ranks among the nation's top 12 in possessions per game - wasn't doing much with those. That changed in the final seven minutes of the first half, and then Marshall bolted away from the Owls by scoring 20 points on eight of nine possessions to start the second half.
That stretch that led to a 48-32 advantage included four 3-pointers by the Herd in a game featuring the two teams that launch the most shots behind the arc in C-USA.
D'Antoni's team got off the mat by getting great distribution, with its first 22 points from nine players. By halftime, the Herd had outscored Rice in bench points, 13-0, and after the Owls pulled in the first eight rebounds of the game, the hosts had a 34-21 bulge on the glass.
Marshall's ball movement led to open looks, and the Herd's .529 marksmanship - the best this season and tops in the last 48 games against Division I competition - was boosted by a .577 second half (15-of-26).
"When we get stops like we did and get on the break, that's when we're at our best," said Loop, whose 16 points on 4-of-12 shooting behind the arc and his dunk supported Taylor's fifth straight double-double (17 points, 11 rebounds) and 10th this season.
Marshall's shooting percentage was its best in a C-USA game since hitting .551 in an 88-84 home win over Southern Miss on March 5, 2013. The last time the Herd displayed a better shooting eye against a Division I foe was on a .590 night in a 96-78 triumph over UNC Wilmington on Nov. 23 of last season.
"We missed some shots," D'Antoni said, "but when you defensively have intensity, when they get an open shot, they still feel that tendency from the play before and the play before that, and the game intensity that's going on. A lot of times they rush shots just purely on that.
"The other thing is that we knew that they were a three-point shooting team. They hit two threes and I called timeout right afterward. Then we came out and we did a little bit better job. We had some miscommunication but basically we were out there.
"They might have tried seven threes in a possession, but we were always there and we always made them go to the next one and the next one and the next, and that's when you get the team out of their rhythm because they're not getting shots off easily, and they start missing stuff. So, I thought we did a good job."
An early eight-point deficit might have been an issue for the Herd as recently as three weeks ago, but Loop said it's no longer a very long December and January for a team that has put a nine-game skid in the rear-view mirror.
"We don't panic," the sophomore said. "We're kind of maturing now. A lot of guys haven't played a lot and we've learned to play together. We're getting a much better feel for the game, realizing it's a game of runs, especially with the way we play, the amount of threes we shoot, a game can turn around at any time.
"This game, Coach kept pounding the way they shoot threes, like us, it can turn around in a couple minutes. Stay poised."
The Herd did.
"Coach told us not to chase (on defense)," said Taylor, whose recent improved play continued on a seven-assist night. "I don't know if you've noticed with our defense, but one play will look like a man-to-man, and the next will look like a zone. We're doing what Coach wants us to do. We're staying solid in our positions and believing in one another."
The Owls had three double-figure scorers, but made only 9-of-31 from behind the arc. It could have been more lopsided, but Rice got 26 points off Marshall turnovers - again those giveaway possessions.
"I think that's part of everything," Loop said when asked about the improved offensive efficiency in the second half that created 41 points over 18 of 33 possessions. "It's fewer turnovers, better defense, getting more stops. I think it all plays into it, and it all starts on the defensive end and works to the offensive end."
Loop said with so much talk about D'Antoni's floor-spreading, free-flowing attack rooted in the pick-and-roll, not much attention has been paid by outsiders to how the Herd plays at the other end of the floor.
"Our defensive scheme, the way we play, the way we down, the rotations, the way we switch, the way we kind of zone up and switch, it's big for us," Loop said. "I think it's tough to play against. As you can see, like tonight, it gives people problems.
"And it's hard to learn, just like the offense. You've got to get in your positions, and really learn to trust your teammates, and know that when they go down in there, that you've got a big sitting there waiting to help you.
"The biggest thing is communication, with all the switches, to do it the right way, you've got to communicate. You've got to be vocal."
The Herd remains home for Saturday's 7 p.m. tipoff against North Texas (9-12, 3-6), which fell 65-59 at league-leading Western Kentucky on Thursday night.