Nov. 25, 2012
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – Elijah Pittman’s transition to major college basketball is a lot like that of his Marshall team early this season.
The talent and versatility is obvious, but “we’re just now coming together, putting it together,” the 6-foot-9 Herd junior said Saturday night.
In a 89-82 Henderson Center quality win over a good Nevada club, Pittman continued to display he’s a ready-for-prime-time player after his move from the Texas junior college ranks.
He scored a career-high 22 points – one of three career scoring highs in the game for the Herd – on 7-of-10 shooting. Pittman was 6-for-7 at the free throw line. He added three blocks, two assists and two rebounds.
In the Herd’s 3-3 start with I-64 rival Morehead State next visiting “The Cam” on Wednesday night, Pittman is averaging 15.5 points on 56 percent shooting, and is 22-of-25 at the line.
Herd Coach Tom Herrion said Pittman’s advantage – besides talent – is that he offers different challenges for an opponent. At 6-9 and with an uncommon perimeter marksmanship for a man that size, he can shoot jumpers over fours who try to guard him.
Or, with a quick first step, Pittman can take a smaller guy at the three to the hoop, score and get an “and-one.”
“I really don’t see ‘em,” Pittman said of his defenders. “I’m just playing basketball, do what I do, try to get what’s there … They’re guarding me more going to the hoop. They haven’t come out on my shot much.”
His length also an issue for opponents at the other end of the floor, where Herrion’s teachings of last week got across against the Wolf Pack (3-2) following losses to South Dakota State and Hofstra the previous weekend.
“The biggest difference in this game, really, was Coach pounded into our heads that we’re last (in Conference USA) in defense,” Pittman said. “We’re last, we’re last in team stats. He wants us to be up top, above everyone else.
“He wanted us to go hard, but the main thing was to just try harder on defense, quit giving up easy buckets, giving easy plays away. We’ve got to grind.”
Herrion’s club went through a difficult seven day stretch. First, it learned that freshman point guard Kareem Canty was declared out this season by the NCAA on an initial eligibility ruling. Then came the two losses, followed last week by serious head injuries to big men Robert Goff and Yous Mbao during a collision during a rebounding drill in practice.
They left the Henderson Center on backboards and stretchers and were hospitalized. Both were at Saturday’s game and their status for the remainder of the season is still to be determined, Herrion said. Mbao was wearing a neck brace, seated in a wheelchair before the win over Nevada.
Pittman said the frontcourt personnel shortage was “crucial” as the Herd was left with only nine scholarship players. The group played big in more ways than one, with Dennis Tinnon matching his career high with 24 points, center Nigel Spikes getting 14 rebounds, Jamir Hanner coming off the bench for a career-best 10 points, and J.P. Kambola providing a solid eight minutes of relief, too.
“Tonight was a big game without those guys,” Pittman said, “and we needed to contribute more and stay on the floor and we did. We did it for Rob and Yous. We needed everybody.”
Pittman, a Covington, Ky., native, has increased his offensive production with each game, going from 9 to 12, 14, 16, 20 and 22 points. His transition continues. Just before the Herd returned to the floor after halftime in the win over Nevada, MU assistant coach Mark Cline – whose recruiting landed the Texas JUCO – stood next to Pittman’s left ear, hand on the player’s shoulder, delivering some kind of message.
“He just said, ‘You’re a good player, and you’ve shown that you’re a good player, so I just need you to step up tonight,’” Pittman said. “In junior college, it’s all about what team you’re on, who you’re with and who’s the best player. This level is 10,000 talented athletes, every Division I college has a bunch, players are everywhere you go. It’s faster and stronger, but it’s still basketball.”
Pittman said the Wolf Pack’s late run to get back into a game came when the Herd fell prey to Nevada’s move to abandon its offensive sets and freelance, after Marshall had played in the first half what third-year coach Herrion said “could have been our best 20 minutes of defense since I’ve been here.”
Pittman agreed that the second half wasn’t the first.
“We were playing defense, but we had to get back our passion on defense,” he said. “We were playing D, but we needed to get back the passion we had early in the game. We let ‘em pass it too much, screen anybody. We were just lackadaisical the second half, except we finally woke back up.
“Another lesson learned.”
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DeAndre Kane’s shot wasn’t falling against the Pack, so he turned distributor. At halftime, Kane was only 2-of-11 from the field. So, in the second half, rather than taking jumpers and driving to the hoop, he went only 1-for-3.
In 40 minutes, Kane had 13 assists and only two turnovers, following his 33-point, 10-assist game in 50 minutes in the double-overtime loss at Hofstra.
He’s the first Herd player with back-to-back, double-figure assist games since 1999-2000, when Cornelius Jackson – now assistant head coach at Tennessee-Martin – had 10 and 15 in late December games against UNC Asheville and Central Michigan, respectively.