Morris Almond scored 29 points for Rice, including 21 of 26 points the Owls had after leading 33-30 at halftime. With 8:17 to play, Almond hit a bank shot that gave Rice a six-point lead, but Marshall would turn up the defensive pressure and Almond would not score again in the game. Marshall would hold the Owls to just five points and force six of the 22 turnovers RU had in the game as MU would rally for only its second one-point lead of the night on a Ross three-pointer with 3:19 to play. The next three minutes would feature five of the seven lead changes and three of the four ties in the game before Markel Humphrey and Mark Dorris put the senior class on their backs and scored the win.
Tyler Wilkerson rejected this shot by Rice's Morris Almond in the first half of Marshall's 69-64 win on Senior Night. photo by Greg Perry/HI staff
"Markel was huge in the second half," said Jirsa of Humphrey, who scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half, including giving MU the lead back at 65-64 with 1:25 to play. Following another Rice turnover, their 22nd and 12th of the second half, Humphrey drove the lane to give the Herd its biggest lead of the night thus far at 67-64 with 30 seconds left. "We had many players play to their potential," said Jirsa. In that group was freshman Tyler Wilkerson, who came off the bench again for seven points and seven rebounds, tying Humphrey for team-high honors in that category. Ross also had a nice senior night with nine points, six assists and two steals, while Aikens had two points, two rebounds, two steals and an assist.
"It was a great crowd that was excited for the team and the seniors. We needed them all and all of our players contributed to giving those three guys a win on Senior Night." Marshall finished with only 10 turnovers in the game, and the plus-12 on Rice is the best of the season. Marshall had seven turnovers against WVU while forcing 17 in the loss to the Mountaineers. Marshall also had 11 steals, only the fifth game of the year with double-digit takeaways. It lead to eight more shots than Rice, and Marshall scored 23 points off the 22 Owls turnovers.
Jean Francois Bro Grebe went up-and-under for a basket against Rice.. photo by Greg Perry/HI staff
Also in the final two and one-half minutes, Marshall hit for 5-of-6 free throws, including 4-for-4 by Mark Dorris. Dorris, who came off the bench with Whitted getting the start, scored a team-high 18 points but had his biggest play at the end of the night. Trailing by three, Rice coach Willis Wilson called a timeout with :26 to play. After 10 seconds in which the Herd nearly came away with a steal, he set up another play during a timeout. But the Owls would turn the ball over when Dorris and Jean Francois Bro Grebe had great defense on Rice's three-point specialist Cory Pflieger, who had Dorris jump high in front of him. The Bro Grebe slid in to get a hand up and as Pflieger moved to shoot around the Herd center, Dorris blocked his shot and rebounded the ball. Plieger fouled the Herd junior and Dorris gave the Herd a final lead of 69-64 with four seconds to play.
"Francois did a great job to slid over, there was no time for anything but the three-point shot," said Jirsa. "If they try to drive, the game is over. We played hard, did a good job on defense and forcing turnovers and won the game." Whitted, who scored 10 points, did a great job on defensing Almond, the nation's third-leading scorer. "Tre is an intelligent player," said the head coach of his lone four-year senior. "He's been our closer on offense, but tonight he was our closer on defense. He made some great adjustments." Whitted held Almond to just eight points in the first half, but was on the bench to start the second half when Almond scored his 21 points in the first 12 minutes. Once he re-entered the game, the Rice scorer was held scoreless the rest of the game.
"I give a lot of credit to my teammates," said Whitted after the game, the Herd's 14th win in the last 15 Senior Night games back to 1992-93. "We did a good job on defense, the energy of the crowd was really great late in the game and it's a great win. It's tough with all your family here, but we settled down and got the win." Whitted is seventh all-time in three-point attempts (453) and eighth all-time in threes made (151). He appeared in his 114th game in a Herd uniform, tying him for fourth in games played all-time with Andre Cunningham, Tamar Slay and Mark Patton. He will at least tie Ronny Dawn at 116 games in third place with an appearance at Southern Miss and in the first round of next week's Conference USA Tournament at the FedEx Forum in Memphis, Tenn. and could pass his former teammate and tie Rodney Holden for second-most games at 117 in a career with a win next Wednesday. Skip Henderson is the all-time leader with 125 games played at MU.
"If we can win at Southern Miss Saturday, we can finish as high as a tie for fifth," said Jirsa of the Herd's next game, at 5 p.m. Eastern time in Hattiesburg, Miss. "We fought through February at 4-4 and have one more game before the tournament. Southern Miss is a good team and it will take a great effort like tonight, because it will be Senior Night there on Saturday evening." The Golden Eagles knocked off UAB to send the C-USA standings into continuing jumble of 8-7 and 7-8 teams, six in all, in the middle of the standings. Memphis, who plays at UTEP on Thursday, has clinched the league title and the No. 6-ranked Tigers are 14-0 in league play. In second is Central Florida, and UCF beat Houston in overtime on Wednesday to move into second place at 10-5 in league play. The Cougars are third at 9-6.
In fourth, there are four teams at 8-7: Rice, Southern Miss, Tulsa (who beat SMU Wed.) and Tulane (who beat East Carolina Wed.). Tied in eighth are Marshall and UAB at 7-8, while UTEP is 6-8. At the rear are SMU at 3-12 and ECU at 1-14. Saturday's other finals besides Marshall at Southern Miss include Tulane at UAB; Tulsa at Rice; East Carolina at UCF; UTEP at Houston; and Memphis at SMU. The C-USA Tournament will have a bye for the top four teams, while the bottom eight will play starting next Wednesday (5 vs. 12; 6 vs. 11; 7 vs. 10; 8 vs. 9). The winners of Wednesday's games move on to face the bye teams on Thursday.