MCGILL: Run Ends for Herd Hoops, But Journey Was Sweet
The Word on the Herd
By Chuck McGill
SAN DIEGO – The next week won’t be as sweet as one hoped, but the journey sure was.
Late Sunday night, here inside San Diego State’s Viejas Arena, the Marshall men’s basketball team lost to West Virginia, 94-71, in front of an NCAA tournament crowd of 11,628. The loss ended the Thundering Herd’s whirlwind and unprecedented run, which started with a Conference USA championship and automatic NCAA berth and led to the program’s first NCAA win.
“It was a great journey,” Marshall coach Dan D’Antoni said. “They’ve lifted Marshall basketball further than it’s ever been … ever. This is the first time we’ve been here.”
Marshall finished the season 25-11 overall, and with it ended a long list of dry spells. The Herd won 25 games for the first time since 1986-87 and ended a 31-year NCAA tournament drought. Marshall beat a Top 25 opponent on the road for the first time in 18 years, won a conference road game against a ranked team for the first time ever and defeated a pair of ranked teams within a 13-day stretch – the first time the program has ever defeated two Top 25 teams in the same season.
In the second half Sunday night, 15 of 16 Round of 32 games had been completed and all but one Sweet 16 team was known. That final spot was going to go to a Mountain State team in a game that featured WVU and Marshall outside of state lines for the first time and in the NCAA tournament against each other for the first time.
Marshall entered Sunday as one of the final 24 teams vying for a national championship, a thought not many prognosticators had when the Herd was picked to finish seventh in the C-USA preseason poll.
“We want to keep it at a national level and this was a great start,” D’Antoni said. “We stop now, but we’ll get back on that floor again pretty soon and enjoy playing basketball together again.”
The Herd started Sunday’s Round of 32 emphatically, jumping out to a 9-2 lead against the Mountaineers behind consecutive 3-pointers by junior guard Jon Elmore, junior forward Ajdin Penava and freshman forward Jannson Williams. Elmore’s 3 put him in a tie for the single season school record for points with Skip Henderson (804), and Elmore eclipsed that mark with a 15-point performance (812 for the season). Elmore also finished with four assists, breaking the school record for assists in a single season with 244. Mike D’Antoni, the younger brother of the Herd’s head coach, held the mark with 241.
Securing those single season records against WVU (26-10) was no easy task for Elmore, who made 4 of 12 shots, 3 of 9 3s and committed eight turnovers.
“I think their physicality got to us a little bit,” Elmore said. “They have quick hands, hand-check you up the floor. They defend, trap, run all different kinds of guys at you. They’re versatile.”
Marshall’s high point came when freshman forward Darius George came off the bench and hit a 3-pointer to make it 16-8, Herd, with 13:56 left of the first half. WVU took over from there. After George scored with 10:52 left to make it 20-15, the Mountaineers outscored the Herd 27-5 the rest of the half. That included a 19-0 run that lasted 6:13 and flipped a 5-point WVU deficit into a 14-point lead.
West Virginia led 42-25 at the half, and then stretched the lead to as many as 31 points in the second half.
Penava finished with a team-high 18 points on 7 of 9 shooting and 2 of 2 from 3-point range. He also had six rebounds and six assists in 36 minutes. Junior guard C.J. Burks was the only other Herd player in double figures with 12 points. Burks surpassed 700 points for the season, the sixth player in program history to reach that mark, and he and Elmore became the first set of teammates to accomplish the feat in the same season.
The game was attended by a large contingent of vocal supporters for both teams, including Governor Jim Justice, a Marshall graduate.
“We had the passion of West Virginia people there and the passion of Marshall people there,” D’Antoni said. “That’s what life is all about.”