What's this? MU having fun?
HUNTINGTON - When it came to cheerleaders, Marshall was short-handed on Wednesday. With the school on break, there was but one female cheerleader and two males.
The Thundering Herd basketball team, though, was anything but short-handed. It was long-armed, stood tall and had a blast from start to post-game press conference in its 79-61 victory over Tulsa in the host's Conference USA opener.
For once, there were good vibrations from this now 8-8 MU team. For once, it had f-u-n.
"Coach [Tom Herrion] came in the locker room before the game," said MU forward Elijah Pittman, who was the game-high scorer with 19 points. "He said despite what happened at Ohio, we're 0-0 [in conference play] tonight. On the board it said to have fun."
The Thundering Herd started slowly in the paint, but soon reversed field. MU zoomed out to an early 9-1 rebounding edge. Nigel Spikes fought for a rebound and jammed the ball. Then Robert Goff dunked off a missed Dennis Tinnon free throw at 15:36.
"I had the most fun then," Goff said afterward. "Our starters set the tone early by knocking down shots and not turning the ball over - as usual."
MU still turned the ball over 20 times, but at least it wasn't like the 26 booted in a 94-57 loss to Ohio. In that game, the Bobcats turned the miscues into 51 points. Tulsa only cashed in for 19.
Herrion correctly pointed to his team's defense as the catalyst of the fun. At the 10-minute mark, Tulsa was on pace to score but 24 points in the game. The Golden Hurricane had six points. Marshall was on a 19-0 run.
At another point, MU had an 18-4 rebounding edge. The only suspense at the time was whether Tulsa would score or rebound first.
The crowd of 5,115 joined the fun when DeAndre Kane stole the ball and twisted a pass to a breaking D.D. Scarver, who then stuffed the ball and collected a foul.
It was simply Marshall's night. Pittman was mugged on one play, threw the ball up from behind the 3-point arc and it shockingly went in. He made a free throw to make the score 38-15.
A good time was being had by all in green. When Yous Mbao made an appearance after missing 10 games for a concussion, he fouled and, at a timeout, Herrion went up to him and playfully put up his dukes.
Kane tried a long trey near the end of the first half, well, just for the heck of it.
Meanwhile, Tulsa had the other type of evening. Coach Danny Manning drew up a play during a timeout that worked to perfection. Kauri Black found himself wide open for a dunk. And he clanked it.
MU was receiving converted free throws from Spikes, Conference USA's free throw shooting equivalent of Dwight Howard. JP Kambola, who averages 3.9 minutes of playing time, blocked a shot. He had a bucket. He banked in a free throw.
"It was a big momentum boost for us to make that many shots rather than to miss that many," Pittman said with a smile.
"Coach expressed to us having fun," Kane said. "He told us to play with joy. In the locker room he said to have fun and play together."
Herrion was looking for joy after pain.
"Nothing bothers me more than to let this fan base down," said the coach. "That pains me. Tonight we took a step in the right direction."
With a bounce in their step.
Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.