First place in Conference USA on the line as Herd heads south for bout with UAB

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Richard Crank | The Parthenon

Guard Austin Loop celebrates with forward Ryan Taylor in a game last season.

The Marshall University men’s basketball team will take on the University of Alabama at Birmingham 8 p.m. Thursday in a battle of the conference’s two top teams.

Marshall enters the game 11-3 in conference play, one game back of first-place UAB, which has a 12-2 conference mark.

That one game lead for UAB stems from its victory in the teams’ earlier meeting this season, a close-knit 81-78 contest in Huntington. Senior forward James Kelly led the Herd with 30 points and 10 rebounds in the loss. Junior forward Ryan Taylor added 19 points, but lost the ball out of bounds in the final seconds with Marshall trailing by one after a controversial missed foul call by the referees.

The Herd has won four straight games heading into Thursday’s game, with its most recent victory being an 82-65 win over Old Dominion University.

“We are feeling really confident,” junior guard Stevie Browning said, “but we can’t get too high because we have a couple of games coming up.”

Junior guard Austin Loop said the Herd will have to continue its defensive discipline from the Old Dominion game, when Marshall allowed its lowest point total of the season in conference play.

“We will need to stick to our principles, play with energy and play within (head) coach (Dan) D’Antoni’s system to come of UAB with a win,” Loop said.

The Herd’s tough slate of games this week won’t end with its matchup with UAB; Marshall will also play on the road 6 p.m. Saturday against Middle Tennessee State University. Middle Tennessee State is currently 10-4 in conference action and sits in third place in the conference.

“This is the biggest week of road games we have played in since I have been here by far,” Loop said.

A win in the next two games would do a lot for Marshall in the conference race with only two games remaining in the regular season after Saturday’s game. Two victories this week would put the Herd in position to take the regular season conference title.

“I think we do have a good chance to win the conference this year,” Loop said. “We have gotten better each week and have a great group of guys.”

Christian Hisman can be contacted at [email protected]