BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Marshall’s run in the Conference USA men’s basketball tournament lasted 73 hours and 34 minutes. The Herd was the only team to play on the first day and the last, a four-games-in-four-days journey that included consecutive games against the Nos. 3, 2 and 1 seeds.
In the end, as the ladders were brought out for coaches and players to cut down the nets here inside Legacy Arena, the Marshall players, exhausted and forlorn, carried the runner-up trophy to the locker room while Middle Tennessee celebrated as champions.
“It’s always great to be in the championship game,” Marshall coach Dan D’Antoni said. “Wish we could have won it.”
The Blue Raiders, 30-4 entering the NCAA tournament and this event’s top seed, never trailed in the final against Marshall, an 83-72 result that gave Middle Tennessee its second straight C-USA tournament title.
“Kids played hard,” D’Antoni said. “They have nothing to hang their heads about.”
It took Middle Tennessee 53 seconds to open scoring, but the Blue Raiders never relinquished that lead. In fact, Marshall seldom threatened, especially in the first half. The Herd didn’t score until more than three minutes had elapsed in the first half, and its normally reliable perimeter game disappeared.
Marshall (20-15) missed its first 10 3-pointers, with Austin Loop connecting on a 3 from the left corner with 4:24 left of the first half. The Herd finished the opening half 2 of 12 from beyond the arc, with the only other successful 3-pointer coming from Stevie Browning with 5 seconds before intermission.
That made the score 40-32 in Middle Tennessee’s favor after the eventual champs led by as many as 13 points, 28-15, moments before Loop’s first 3.
“I don’t think we shot as well as we usually do,” Elmore said. “The whole tournament we’ve been kind of burning the nets down, making everything.”
Marshall whittled away at the deficit in the second half, cutting MT’s lead to 3 points, 46-43, when Loop connected on another 3-pointer. The 6-foot-3 senior from South Webster, Ohio, was one of the Herd’s lone bright spots from outside, making 4 of 9 3-pointers. The rest of the Herd combined to make 6 of 23.
MU’s opportunity to seize the lead came with 12:50 left of the championship after junior guard Jon Elmore made a pair of free throws to pull the Herd within 2 points, 53-51. But Marshall’s offense went a three-minute, 13-second stretch without any points.
The game was still within 5 points, 61-56, after Browning made a 3 with 6:32 left. Then tournament MVP Giddy Potts answered with a baseline drive and dunk, layup and free throw to double the lead to double digits. MT pushed the lead to as many as 14 points twice in the final five minutes.
“We’re disappointed, but we played hard and gave it everything we had,” Browning said. “It didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to, but we’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.”
Browning and Elmore earned all-tournament honors for Marshall.
Browning finished the championship game with 14 points, six assists and seven rebounds. He averaged 19.5 points and 5.0 assists in four tournament games, and only turned the ball over six times in 143 minutes. He sat on the bench for just 17 minutes of tournament action.
Elmore averaged 15.5 points per game and 4.3 assists. He made 12 3s this week and played 147 of a possible 160 minutes.
In the championship, sophomore guard C.J. Burks came off the bench to lead the team in scoring with 16. Loop and Elmore added 12 and Ajdin Penava scored 10.
Potts sealed the MVP with a 30-point, eight-rebound performance.
Sixth-seeded Marshall began the tournament Wednesday with an 89-74 win against Florida Atlantic. The Herd then defeated No. 3 Old Dominion, 64-63, and then ousted No. 2 seed Louisiana Tech, 93-77, on a short turnaround from Thursday night to Friday afternoon. The win against Louisiana Tech gave Marshall its 22nd 20-win season in program history.
“We got 20 wins and we’re in the finals of the conference,” D’Antoni said. “We started out at rock bottom. The hardest part is taking a program that is maturing and playing a program that is matured.”
Marshall tied or set a slew of Conference USA tournament records, including team scoring, team 3-pointers, team 3-pointers attempted and team assists.
Stevie Browning connected on a 3-pointer to close scoring, which gave Marshall 318 points in four tournament games. That ties the 2005 Memphis team for best total team scoring output in tournament history.
The Herd hit 10 3-pointers in Saturday’s championship game, giving the team a record-breaking 43 made 3s in the tournament. The previous record was held by Houston, 37, in 2010. MU also smashed the tournament record for 3s attempted. The previous record was also held by the 2010 Houston team with 97. Marshall attempted 122 in four games.
Marshall broke a 20-year-old C-USA tournament record for team assists, which was previously held by Marquette (58 in 1997). The Herd recorded 64 assists in four games.
MU coach Dan D’Antoni and senior guard Austin Loop hit milestones in Saturday’s championship. The C-USA final was D’Antoni’s 100th game coaching at Marshall, while it was Loop’s 100th consecutive game started.
Loop’s four 3-pointers in the championship pushed his season total to 112, which is tied for the eighth-best single-season performance in league history. Loop is tied on the single-season list with UAB’s Robert Vaden.
Loop is now in the top 200 in NCAA history in career 3-pointers with 293. Loop is tied for No. 199 on the list with Siena’s Scott Knapp (1998-2001) and Dayton’s Brian Roberts (2005-08).
Ryan Taylor pushed his career rebounding total to 985, which puts him No. 5 on C-USA’s all-time list. Taylor passed Tulsa great Jerome Jordan (983, 2007-10) during Saturday’s championship.