First half run dooms Herd’s bid for championship game appearance

Foul trouble, missed free throws and consistently yielding paths to the rim marred the Marshall University men’s basketball team Friday in its bid for a spot in the conference championship game as it fell to Middle Tennessee State University 99-90 in tournament semifinals.

The Herd were outscored 50-38 in the paint and 31-9 at the free throw line for the game, although both final lines were bloated in garbage time. Coach Dan D’Antoni and the Herd were also burdened by foul trouble to its big men as James Kelly, Ryan Taylor and Terrence Thompson all picked up two fouls before halftime.

“In the first half, we passed to the post more and that got Kelly and Taylor into foul trouble and that kind of affected the rest of the game” Middle Tennessee State forward Reggie Upshaw Jr. said. “Coach (Kermit) Davis told us all to be really physical at the rim and go at them because we knew they were in foul trouble.”

The fluctuating frontcourt rotation combined with a synchronized and energized 1-3-1 defense by Middle Tennessee State had the Herd reeling heading into the halftime break. After the Herd went up 22-18 with 8:14 remaining in the first half, Middle Tennessee State ripped off a 21-5 run over the next 6:30 to go up 39-27 and eventually take a 39-29 advantage into the half.

Davis deployed a 1-3-1 zone defense, which mixed in trapping elements to hold the high-scoring Herd offense to just seven points over the final eight minutes of the half.

“I thought in the first half for periods of time was about as well as we’ve defended all year,” Davis said. “I thought the change in our defenses; these guys have a great belief in our 1-3-1. It really slowed them down.”

Taylor, particularly, was ineffective, scoring just two points and not attempting a single shot in 10 first-half minutes.

The second half immediately took on a quickened pace with D’Antoni unraveling a full-court press in an effort to maximize the team’s possession total and force turnovers. Rather than simply trying to digest the pressure and burn clock, Middle Tennessee State head coach Kermit Davis said he decided aggressively attacking the pressure was the best route to secure the victory. The result was a track meet, one in which the Herd would make up ground only to stumble behind into another 15-point hole.

“We just couldn’t get over that hump,” Elmore said. “It was 10-15, but they just kept fighting. They just outworked us is what it came down to.”

The Herd cut the lead to 11 on several occasions in the second half with guard Stevie Browning flipping up nifty floaters in the lane to score a team-high 20 points, guard Austin Loop connecting from beyond the arc and at the free throw line to match Browning’s 20 and Taylor responding from his first-half MIA designation to pursue every offensive rebound with energized force en route to scoring 13 points and grabbing five rebounds.

However, Marshall couldn’t put more than a dent in the Blue Raider lead as Middle Tennessee State shot 76.9 percent in the second half, converting a plethora of point-blank shots after breaking through Marshall’s press.

In spite of the loss, D’Antoni’s shared his optimism for the future of the program numerous times postgame.

“From where the program was and where these young men have taken it, they’ve given us a stepping stone and building block of a better program,” D’Antoni said. “I can’t do anything more than thank them for what they did.”

Bradley Heltzel can be contacted at [email protected]