HUNTINGTON — Just how happy was Marshall University head coach Dan D’Antoni following the Thundering Herd men’s basketball team’s 84-74 win at FIU on Thursday?
“I’m going to jump out on the beach real early [on Friday],” D’Antoni said. “I got some Speedos and I’m going to try and get out there. If there’s some type of earthquake down there, you know it’s people running. Go Herd!”
It may have been the first time all season that D’Antoni let his fun-loving personality shine, and it came with good reason.
Marshall (10-12 overall, 4-5 Conference USA) was locked in a tight ballgame late with the Panthers, who came in undefeated at Ocean Bank Convocation Center, their home arena. Still, it was the Herd that was the aggressor in the game’s late stages, using a pivotal five-minute stretch to lock up a critical road win.
“This is their first home loss,” Marshall sophomore Taevion Kinsey said. “We’re glad to deliver that one to them. Definitely a hard-fought win.”
The biggest factor in that win was how the guards played down the stretch.
Marshall’s trio of Kinsey, Jarrod West and Andrew Taylor were younger than their veteran backcourt counterparts with the Panthers, but showed maturity and poise.
The Herd did not have a turnover in the game’s final 9:41 — a stark contrast to previous losses in which the team faltered late in close games.
“We have three good guards, and when you have three good guards against pressure, it’s not as effective,” D’Antoni said. “I thought Andy, Jarrod and Taevion handled that really well.”
The biggest change in the second half came from Marshall’s two leaders, Kinsey and West, who struggled in the first half as the Herd fell behind at halftime. In the first half, West was 2 of 10 from the floor and had just four points and two assists while Kinsey struggled to 2-of-9 shooting and had several turnovers.
Those two showed their veteran leadership in the second half, taking their games to another level.
West knocked down a pair of 3-pointers to get the Herd in rhythm and added six assists in the second half while Kinsey went 6 of 7 from the floor, scoring 12 of his 18 points after halftime.
In terms of offense, the second half was as clean a performance as the Herd has had, shooting 66 percent from the floor with only three turnovers.
“It’s been awhile coming,” D’Antoni said. “We played a good ballgame.”
The ability to take care of the basketball also limited FIU’s transition game, which put more pressure on the Panthers’ offense to produce — an aspect that got to them late in the game.
While the Herd took care of the ball over the final 10 minutes, the Panthers fell victim to the Herd’s half-court defense, especially during a 4:45 stretch in which Marshall kept FIU without a point.
During that time, FIU missed all four field goal attempts it attempted and had four turnovers — three of which came after offensive rebounds off those misses.
The Herd used that to go on a 9-0 run that took the game from a two-possession affair to a 14-point contest with just under three minutes remaining.
“It was a very big win,” Kinsey said.
For Marshall, a similar formula is needed on Saturday when the Herd takes on Florida Atlantic, which is coming off a big home win over Western Kentucky to knock the Hilltoppers from the ranks of C-USA’s top spot.
Florida Atlantic is also going to be an up-tempo team that utilizes an athletic lineup that likes to shoot from the outside while going 10 deep on its roster.
Cornelius Taylor leads Florida Atlantic (13-9, 5-4 C-USA) at 12.4 points per game while Jailyn Ingram averages 10.6 points and 4.6 rebounds.
While the guards for each team will be the focal point, the X-factor in the contest is Marshall center Iran Bennett, who performed well against a similar lineup on Thursday night. Bennett used his frame to be a force throughout the contest, finishing 6 of 8 from the floor and 6 of 8 from the line to garner 18 points while adding six rebounds, two blocks and three steals.
Marshall’s guards will be called on to take care of the basketball in an up-tempo pace — something West has done supremely well in his last two contests with 19 assists and three turnovers — and distribute the ball to Bennett in scoring areas on the interior.
If Marshall is able to do so, it could be looking at a weekend sweep that gets the team back into the mix to be in the top pod within Conference USA once bonus play starts.
The three teams one game ahead of the Herd right now for that No. 5 spot are Florida Atlantic, Old Dominion and FIU. Marshall has already defeated Old Dominion and FIU, and has a chance to top Florida Atlantic at 4 p.m. Saturday.