HUNTINGTON – UAB was expected to be first in the Conference USA men’s basketball standings. Marshall’s Thundering Herd wasn’t.
UAB is the C-USA defending champion and preseason favorite while Marshall was picked to finish ninth.
The Blazers and Herd met Saturday in Cam Henderson Center playing for first place at the mid-point of the conference schedule. UAB won, 81-78, and Marshall gave the Blazers all they could handle.
UAB, which had the nation’s longest 14-game win streak stopped Thursday at Western Kentucky, has an 18-4 season record and received votes last week in both national Top 25 polls. The Blazers are first alone in C-USA at 8-1. Marshall, 11-11 overall, is 7-2 in the league and shares second place with the Middle Tennessee team it defeated Thursday.
Despite the setback, Marshall is proving itself to be a conference contender for the first time in many years.
“It’s an experience,” Marshall head coach Dan D’Antoni said. “Somehow in society we forgot it’s the ride. This was a heck of a ride. We didn’t quite get to the right motel. We went to the wrong one. But, it ain’t bad. There will be more rides, Cabs come by all the time. We’ll flag one down. We’ll get in the right ride.”
Marshall hasn’t been in a similar situation in a long time and D’Antoni said if you haven’t been there before you either need a lot of experience or a lot of luck. He said the Herd didn’t have a lot of luck Saturday and doesn’t have any experience, but it will get better as the season continues.
A season-best turnout of 7,085 charged up spectators for the afternoon game set the team back at the beginning because of expectations and being in a big-game atmosphere for the first time, D’Antoni said.
Marshall forward James Kelly’s 30 points and 10 rebounds in the 6-foot-8 senior’s league-leading 11th double-double game this season was almost overlooked after some untimely officiating calls and non-calls went against the Herd in the closing minutes of a tight affair.
“Really frustrating, but we tried to keep our heads,” Kelly said. “It just didn’t go our way.”
* UAB led, 79-74 after Kelly’s layup and junior forward Ryan Taylor’s attempt to draw Marshall closer was blocked out of bounds by William Lee of the Blazers. Marshall wanted a basket interference call, but the whistle didn’t blow.
* Taylor hit a 3-point shot that put Marshall within 79-78 with 45 seconds left. With the game clock ticking down to two seconds remaining Taylor drove on Lee again. There was contact and the ball went out of bounds. Marshall was awarded possession, but the referees reviewed the play and reversed the call to give UAB the basketball.
* Blazers’ point guard Nick Norton ran into Marshall guard Stevie Browning on the inbounds play and there was no call either way. “It was a judgment call,” Browning said. “I thought it was a good play, but it didn’t work out our way.”
D’Antoni said there’s no use rehashing the final minutes because it’s out of his control.
UAB head coach Jerod Haase said it was a high-level game between very good basketball teams.
“What coach D’Antoni and that team has done over the last two months has been nothing short of phenomenal,” Haase said. “I thought our guys played extremely hard. We did a lot of nice things for a game that is for the top of the league standings. You know it’s going to be a big-time game. I thought our guys performed well and I really thought Marshall played extremely hard.
“The crowd was fantastic and we’re thrilled to get out of here with a win.”
Kelly’s fourth 30-point game this season was supported by Taylor with 19. Browning and point guard Jon Elmore both scored nine and nobody else for Marshall had more than four.
The Blazers had five double-figure scorers – Dirk Williams 16, Robert Brown 15, Norton 14, Lee 13 and Chris Cokley 13.
Marshall is on the road this week for games Thursday and Saturday at UTEP and UTSA respectively. UTEP (11-11, 3-6) lost Sunday at Louisiana Tech (16-5, 5-3), 78-70.