31 years later, the ‘Big Dance’ awaits for Herd men’s basketball

FRISCO, Texas — After 31 years of anticipation, the Marshall Thundering Herd men’s basketball team earned a bid to the ‘Big Dance’—the NCAA Tournament—Saturday night after defeating the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers at the Ford Center at the Star. The Herd’s down to the wire, 67-66 victory featured a 27-point explosion from junior guard Jon Elmore, who was honored as the Conference USA Tournament MVP.

“I’m happy,” Marshall head coach Dan D’Antoni said. “I’m happy for these kids, I’m happy for the school. It’s been a long time coming. When I played (Marshall basketball), it was on a high level and Jon (Elmore) has taken it even higher than that—and all the guys that play with him. Tonight was incredible.”

Elmore set a Conference USA Championship Game record with seven three pointers, propelling him to MVP honors. Elmore led all scorers with his 27 points, shooting 9-for-21 from the field, 7-for-13 from beyond the arc and 2-for-2 from the free-throw line. Overall, the tournament MVP had 22.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game.

“Coach kind of fired me up,” Elmore said. “My teammates had confidence in me all year long. Credit our team, our system, our fans. They carried me tonight, great team win.”

Ajdin Penava finished with 16 points and nine rebounds and, along with Elmore, earned All-Conference USA Tournament honors after averaging 17 points, 8.3 rebounds and two blocks per game during the Herd’s three-game tournament stretch.

Marshall, which lost both of its regular season games against the Hilltoppers, played physical and forced 11 WKU turnovers and 12 personal fouls throughout the contest. Consequently, the Herd established a three-point lead at the half—a lead it wouldn’t relinquish for the rest of the contest. WKU, however, went on an 11-0 scoring run over towards the end of the game—cutting the lead down to one point after WKU senior forward Justin Johnson hit a layup with 1:06 remaining in the contest.

“They’re cutting (the lead) down,” D’Antoni said. “I’m just telling them the basics, like every coach says: go meet the ball, make sure you hold on to it, (remember) how many timeouts you got. You’re focused on the moment, just trying to pull a win out.”

WKU threatened with less than 15 seconds remaining, as the Hilltoppers went on an offensive possession that could have propelled them to a one-point lead. However, after a missed jump shot by Johnson and a missed layup by WKU junior guard Lamonte Bearden, Marshall redshirt freshman forward Jannson Williams came up with his ninth rebound of the game with 12 seconds remaining.

From there, the Herd ran down the clock, as Williams caught an inbound pass down-court. Subsequently, Marshall hoisted the Conference USA championship trophy and cut down the nets.

“It’s a great feeling, man,” Williams said. “One of the best moments of my life. As soon as I caught (the ball), I looked over to my left and I saw that there were two seconds left. I just knew, as soon as I got the ball, the game was over.”

The Herd now awaits Sunday night’s tournament selection show, in which Marshall learns its destiny for the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament.

“Before the season started this year, we were thinking back about just how the season ended last year,” Elmore said. “We talked about that feeling, how we didn’t want that again. We had leaders step up this year. We earned it, we fought all year long. We’re not done yet.”

Rick Farlow can be contacted at [email protected].