HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Marshall started getting its basketball house in order this past weekend, which couldn't have come at a better time.The Thundering Herd (3-2) welcomes Western Kentucky (3-1) at 7 tonight to the Cam Henderson Center in the third game of the Roundball Showcase.Marshall jumped out to a big lead over the University of North Carolina Wilmington and made it stick for a 96-78 victory Saturday. The Herd led by 19 at halftime (48-29), and after the Seahawks sliced their deficit to 11 points early in the second half, Marshall answered by extending its lead to its largest of the game at 21 points with 11:08 to go and never looked back.The Herd suffered two heartbreaking losses last week in overtime at Morehead State (102-94) and at home against Stephen F. Austin (80-73).
"This is so much of what we can become because of their attitude,'' said Marshall coach Tom Herrion of Saturday's win. "We're definitely tired of losing."We've played really well for 39 minutes. It's been the last minute of the last two games. This group is playing really well. They're just not finishing situations. They've got a really great attitude and spirit and they believe in themselves and what we're doing.''Western Kentucky will certainly be a test for Marshall since the Hilltoppers have advanced to the NCAA tournament the past two seasons. Western Kentucky, which will join Conference USA next season, is picked to win the Sun Belt Conference for a third straight season. The Hilltoppers' lone loss this year was to No. 16 Wichita State."There's still another quick turnaround with a tremendous Western Kentucky team,'' Herrion said. "It's as good a nonconference game we've had in this building in a long time.''
Marshall shot 59 percent from the floor against UNCW and knocked down 57.9 percent of its 3-pointers (11 of 19).The Herd, though, still struggled at the foul line, missing 10 (13 of 23) for a 56.5-percent clip. Marshall did, however, connect on 75 percent (9 of 12) at the charity stripe in the second half. On defense, the Herd surrendered 49 points to the Seahawks in the second half and allowed them to hit at a 55.9-percent pace from the floor."We were so good offensively, but defensively I thought things really disappointed us,'' said Herrion. "We buckled a little bit, then we were able to stretch it back out."We've got to respond coming out of halftime. A lot of good things, but there's areas we've got to continue to improve on. We'll tighten those up. We have to.''
Marshall senior forward Elijah Pittman exploded for a career-high 35 points against UNCW, knocking down eight 3-pointers, which was also the most in his career. Pittman paces the Herd at 29.4 points per game, which is fifth in the nation and tops in Conference USA."He's missed a lot of open shots, but he's a terrific deep shooter,'' Herrion said of Pittman. "He got into a really good rhythm and congratulations to his teammates for finding him. It became contagious. I think that reflects on our unselfishness. Guys are getting in great spots also. A lot of guys really passed the ball.''Marshall freshman point guard Kareem Canty continued to impress with 19 points and 10 assists against only three turnovers versus the Seahawks. Canty leads Marshall with 8.4 assists per game, which is second nationally and No. 1 in Conference USA, and is second on the Herd in scoring at 17.0 points per contest.
Herd sophomore guard Chris Thomas, who made his first career start Saturday, shined with 15 points on 7-of-11 shooting in 20 minutes. Thomas replaced sophomore guard DeVince Boykins.Freshman forward Ryan Taylor contributed 11 points and 10 rebounds against UNCW. Taylor is the Herd's third-leading scorer at 12.6 points per game while Thomas averages 10.2.Western Kentucky is led by 6-foot-4 junior guard T.J. Price (18.0 points per game) and 6-6 junior forward George Fant (13.0).Herrion said his players are beginning to respond to their trial by fire."You have to go through experiences to gain experience,'' said the Marshall coach. "We've been through them and we've learned harsh lessons, painful lessons, so we've got to go through these and continue to get better at it. We are a work in progress.''BRIEFLY: Marshall has one game left in the Roundball Showcase, a visit to East Tennessee State at 4 p.m. Saturday. ... Western Kentucky holds an 11-4 edge over Marshall in the series with the last Herd win coming in 1961. The series has skipped decades. ... The Hilltoppers have held nine straight opponents under 70 points.
Reach Tommy R. Atkinson at email@example.com or 304-348-4811.