By Chuck McGill
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – When it comes to the Henderson Center crowd, the bigger the better.
Saturday night’s head coaches – Middle Tennessee’s Kermit Davis and Marshall’s Dan D’Antoni – each lauded the 7,620 fans, the Herd’s largest home attendance this season. But on the court, D’Antoni determined that smaller is better.
At least against the Blue Raiders.
D’Antoni leaned on six players under 6 feet, 6 inches tall in Saturday night’s second half: 6-5 Ryan Taylor, 6-3 Stevie Browning, 6-3 Jon Elmore, 6-4 Austin Loop, 6-2 Ky’re Allison and 6-3 C.J. Burks played 93 of a possible 100 minutes. Not coincidentally, the Herd’s fortunes flipped.
It wasn’t enough to stave off Marshall’s second home loss of the season, this one a 97-86 triumph for visiting and Conference USA frontrunner Middle Tennessee. MT outscored Marshall 47-26 in the first half, and then the small-ball lineup for the homestanding Herd rallied, trimmed what was once a 26-point deficit to 9 and outscored 24-4 Middle Tennessee 60-50 in the second half.
“Their bigs are really difficult for us because they play like guards,” D’Antoni said. “They face up, they’re athletic, they can drive, they cut hard. We’ve got to get our bigs in the same rhythm that they play, which is extremely hard and quick-paced. That’s why I went small.”
Marshall (15-12, 8-6 C-USA) struggled from the outset, missing 17 of its first 20 field goal attempts. The Herd, ranked No. 11 nationally in 3-pointers made, didn’t connect from long range until 37 seconds left of the first half, when Burks (Martinsburg, West Virginia) drained one from the left corner. MU had missed its first 10 attempts before Burks converted one.
The Herd, which entered Saturday’s game as the only C-USA team with fewer than two losses at home (11-1, now 11-2), made only 7 of 26 shots (26.9 percent) in the first half, including 1 of 11 on 3s (9.1 percent). That changed with the smaller lineup, with Marshall making 22 of 38 shots (57.9 percent) after intermission, including 6 of 13 from 3-point range (46.2 percent).
“We took a 26-point lead down to (9),” D’Antoni said. “But we can’t win that way in the long haul.
“The first half they busted our butt, but the second half we made it competitive,” he added. “I think Ryan played really good, C.J. was excellent and Jon made some really outstanding plays. We’ve just got to get other people at that level.”
Marshall’s 86 points is the most an opponent has scored on Middle Tennessee this season. In fact, the Blue Raiders held their previous five opponents to below 60 points, and hadn’t allowed a team to score at least 70 points since Jan. 14 (Western Kentucky).
“Dan is as good of an offensive coach as anybody in college basketball,” MT coach Kermit Davis said. “We just kind of hung on the last 5 or 10 minutes.”
Burks established a new career high with 27 points on 11-of-15 shooting. He made 4 of 7 from 3-point range, the only Herd player to make multiple 3s. He hadn’t scored more than 15 points in a Conference USA game this season.
Taylor, who moved up a variety of career lists in program and Conference USA history (see notes below), filled up the stat sheet: 20 points, 13 rebounds, five assists, two steals and one block. That is Taylor’s ninth double-double this season and 36th for his career.
Elmore (Charleston, West Virginia) finished with 18 points and five assists.
Middle Tennessee, which improved to 14-1 in C-USA play, had six players score in double figures: JaCorey Williams, 23; Giddy Potts, 19; Reggie Upshaw, 12; Tyrik Dixon, 10; Brandon Walters, 10; and Xavier Habersham, 10.
Davis, who picked up his 300th win at Middle Tennessee, praised D’Antoni and the rowdy Henderson Center crowd.
“It was a fantastic environment,” he said. “The Marshall fan base to be there at almost 8,000 people, that’s a great reflection on our league and Conference USA.
“I’m a big fan of Dan’s and the job that he’s doing here. Just to have that kind of crowd shows how much they like the head coach and players.”
Head coach Dan D’Antoni-
“They’re a good ball club. They played extremely hard. Their bigs are really difficult for us because they play like guards. They can face up, they’re athletic, they can drive, they cut hard and we have to get our bigs in the same rhythm that they play, which is extremely hard. That’s why we were unable to really get their post.
“We weren’t staying with their speed off of picks. We faced up on Williams and we weren’t getting up in there tight enough to where he missed shots. Still, we took a 26 point lead down to eleven. But we can’t win that way in the long run. We have to have our bigs step up and get into rhythm with that type of game.”