One game away: Herd earns rematch with WKU for NCAA berth

Elmore’s near triple-double has Marshall 40 minutes away from its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1987

FRISCO, Texas—Junior guard Jon Elmore scored a team-high 26 points Friday afternoon as Marshall men’s basketball accomplished a decisive 85-75 semifinal win against Southern Miss at the Ford Center at The Star. With the win, the Herd advances to its second-straight Conference USA Championship Game Saturday evening at 7:30 p.m. CST (8:30 EST) against the Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky University.

“I’m proud of Jon (Elmore),” Marshall head coach Dan D’Antoni said. “He was one rebound and one assist off a triple-double. Those are pretty good stats and he’s done that all year long. If you look at his stats from scoring, assists steals and rebounds, I don’t believe there’s anyone in the country that has all of them elevated to the point he’s at.”

Elmore shot 7-for-13 from the field, 5-for-10 from beyond the arc and 7-for-7 from the line. In addition to his 26 points, Elmore tallied nine rebounds and nine assists as he flirted with a triple-double. Elmore now needs five more assists to tie the Conference USA tournament record.

“I couldn’t throw a ball in the ocean (against UTSA) and got a little frustrated,” Elmore said. “But coaches have confidence in me, my dad and brother kept coaching me up; helping me on the sidelines before the game. So, I stayed confident, kept shooting and thought the next one is going in and they fell tonight.”

With his parents in attendance, redshirt freshman forward Jannson Williams scored 17 points—one short of tying his career-high (18 at WKU in the regular season)—and was the Herd’s second-highest scorer. Williams has scored double-figures in three-straight contests, as he had 13 points against Middle Tennessee to end the regular season, 15 in the quarterfinal against UTSA and 17 today.

“It was amazing,” Williams said. “It really was. At the time, I didn’t know I had 17 points and five rebounds. I thought I had less than that. It was good to see (my parents) proud.”

Marshall experienced rebounding troubles throughout the regular season, however, the Herd won the total rebounding battle by nine (36-27) today. Williams talked about the key to Marshall’s rebounding success.

“They’re really small.” Williams said. “But it comes with its strengths, being small; with a lower center of gravity. It’s hard to box them out. But we knew we could overpower them.”

Three additional Marshall players scored double-figures. Junior guard C.J. Burks scored 13 points and, despite lower than average scoring totals, had a well-rounded stat line as he tallied six rebounds, six assists and two steals. Freshman guard Jarrod West scored 12 points and ended his streak of games without double-figure scoring at 17. Junior forward Ajdin Penava posted 12 points and blocked two shots.

“I’ll take an 85-point scoring drive,” D’Antoni said. “The offense we run is a high-risk, high-reward offense. We are a very good executing ball club that has to play at a high-risk level and a high skill level.”

The Herd started the game hot from beyond the arc, as Marshall’s offense posted a 50 percent three-point shooting percentage (9-for-18) and a 53.1 (17-for-32) field goal shooting percentage in the first half. Comparatively, Southern Miss’s first half resulted in a 33.3 (9-for-27) field goal percentage and a 28.6 (4-for-14) three-point shooting percentage. The halftime score reflected the statistics, as the Herd took a 47-27 lead into the break.

“We used to have a saying,” D’Antoni said. “If you’re up by 20, you haven’t won the game, if you’re down by 20, you’re still close.”

The second half reflected the fragility of a 20-point difference, as Southern Miss inched within a six-point deficit after a layup by redshirt junior guard Kevin Holland with three minutes remaining in the game.

“(Southern Miss) made a run on us a little bit because they quit shooting three’s,” D’Antoni said. “They took some real hard two’s and made them. So, you have to give them credit.”

Elmore responded, though, with a three-pointer to put the Herd up by nine. From there, Southern Miss was forced to foul to slow down the clock.

“That’s my job as a point guard and leader of this team to try to make this team flow and run smoothly,” Elmore said. “We got a little stagnant and they made a run, but C.J. (Burks) made a good pass, I knocked down the shot.”

Marshall continued its stellar free-throw shooting and drained 11 free-throws in the final two minutes and 30 seconds, as the Herd staved off the Golden Eagles and won by double-digits. D’Antoni talked about adjustments and his team’s defensive performance in a post-game press conference.

“I think ‘adjustments’ is an overused word for coaches to keep (media) confused,” D’Antoni said. “It’s basically players playing. All-in-all, especially in the first half, our defense was outstanding. We finally got engaged.”

Marshall experienced two injury scares during its semifinal contest, as Williams and Penava both left the game with apparent ankle injuries. Williams would return to the game, but Penava did not.

“They told me I could have used Penava at the end of the game,” D’Antoni said. “I just wasn’t going to take any chances. I’m assuming he’ll be available for tomorrow night.”

Overall, the Herd shot 26-for-51 (51 percent) from the field, 12-for-28 (42.9 percent) from beyond the arc and 21-for-25 (84 percent) from the line. The Herd is 53-for-63 (84.1 percent) from the line through two C-USA tournament games. Marshall’s starters accounted for 80 of the Herd’s 85 total points. Marshall led for 36:09 and trailed for 1:21 and has led for 74:23 of the 80 minutes it has played in this year’s C-USA tournament.

“We trust each other,” Elmore said. “It’s kind of like a family environment. Everybody is close, a lot of people contribute. It was a great team win and we’re happy to get back to the championship and hopefully end it a little different than last year.”