The attendance for the Conference USA opener for Rice and Marshall drew 258 fans...that's right, 258 people made their way to Reliant Arena, a building in the shadow of Reliant Stadium, home of the Houston Texans, and the Astrodome, still standing after being mostly abandoned with the Oilers moving to Tennessee and the Texans getting a brand-new stadium. Marshall senior Mark Dorris, who led the Herd with 17 points and dished out six assists, thought the last time he played a game in front of fewer fans was in junior high or midget league. "It was weird," said Dorris, who hit for 6-of-12 shots and 3-of-6 three-point baskets. "Once you got used to it (the empty arena), we were fine." Dorris was happier with his and the Herd's finish than the early portion of the game. "We didn't have the high level of intensity to start, but we took it to another level in the second half," Dorris said. "Give Rice credit, they played hard despite their injuries."
Dorris was called on by Coach Donnie Jones, who won his first road game since starting a season that now finds Marshall 9-4 for the year, and 1-0 in Conference USA for the second time in three seasons to open league play. Jones lost senior Taurean Marshall, who injured his knee making a steal in the Winthrop win, and needed other players to step up and replace the 4.6 points, 2.6 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game the walk-on guard was bringing each game. Marshall had made 26 assists against just 11 turnovers on the year.
"We told Mark today at shoot-around he might play the one, the two, the three, the four...even the five, maybe," said Jones, speaking of having the versatile Dorris playing at point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward or center, respectively. "He stepped up big for us tonight." Jones was also aware the Owls entered the game with only ten healthy players, seven of whom are on scholarship, one walk-on and two players who came over from the football team to help with depth. "We tell the kids you never know when the press is going to kick in. It might be early, it may come 20 minutes into the game or late, but we have to stay with it."
The Herd surged to a first-half 14-8 lead early, forcing five turnovers by Rice in the first nine minutes of the game. But Marshall turned the ball over seven times in the first half, and was beat on the boards 17-10. The Owls turned that advantage into 20 points in the paint, ten points off turnovers and nine second chance points. The Herd also shot a terrible 25 percent, 3-of-12, from behind the arc on the open end of the horseshoe-shaped arena, although Matt Walls drained his first three with two seconds left, following a Jean Francois Bro Grebe dunk the previous trip to cut what had been a nine point lead to just four. Rice had only its third lead at half for the season at 33-29.
Rice continued to lead in the second half, but a Walls three and a Dorris three put Marshall up to stay, 40-39, about four and one-half minutes into the second 20 minutes. From the 17:46 mark, when the Herd trailed by six, to 11:41 left in the game, Marshall out-scored Rice 17-4 and led 48-41, the biggest lead of the night for MU, up to that point.
Rice would answer with a Paulius Packevicius lay-up to cut the lead to seven (he scored ten points with five rebounds), but that was pretty much the end of scoring for the Owls. Over the last 11:29 of the game, Rice made only one field goal (1-for-7), turned the ball over six more times (21 on the night) and scored just four points at the line as Marshall pulled away by forcing 13 second half RU turnovers and converting those into 19 points for the Herd. Darryl Merthie came off the bench to score ten points for the Herd, and the Marshall bench out-scored Rice 20-8. Marshall is 8-1 when it out-scores the other team's bench and 9-1 when the Herd has more points off turnovers (30-to-16 over the Owls).
Nursing a ankle sprain that has hampered him for the past couple of games, Markel Humphrey still gave the Herd ten points to go with an assist, block and steal. Freshman Tirrell Baines was kept out of double-figure scoring for only the second time in 13 games, but led the Herd with eight rebounds (four on the offensive glass) and with four steals to go with six points and two assists. Walls, who began the game 0-for-4 from three, scored ten points on a 3-for-9 night from the floor, 2-of-7 from three. The Herd shot 5-of-8 from three in the second half, 8-for-20 for the game. Rice's Rodney Foster, hitting just 21 percent from three coming into the game, scored ten points on 2-of-5 from behind the line, but may have joined the injured Owls on the sideline when he went down with 1:49 left and appeared to have injured his knee badly. Foster left the arena unable to put any no weight on his left leg and very little on the right.
Also bringing an inside presence to Marshall was Tyler Wilkerson. The sophomore scored six of his eight points in the second half, missing just one shot in five tries and grabbed a steal. "We keep waiting for Tyler to step up for us," said Jones. "I was happy with his effort tonight." Wilkerson helped Marshall to a 14-10 edge in the paint in the second half. Marshall also out-rebounded the Owls in the second half 17-11, and won the offensive rebound battle by 7-4. "To get a road win is great, especially after starting out flat like we did," Jones said. "We did a good job of executing in the second half."
The Herd will fly home on Thursday from Houston and have practice later that evening to prepare for the highest-ranked team to ever play MU in men's basketball when No. 2 (AP and ESPN/Coaches polls) Memphis comes to Huntington at 14-0. The Tigers opened C-USA play with its 41st consecutive win at FedEx Arena in Memphis with a 99-58 trouncing of East Carolina in league play to join Marshall, UTEP, UAB and Central Florida at 1-0 to start C-USA play. The game is nearing a sell-out, and the first 2,000 fans will receive a foam cheer noodle. The ZOOperstars will perform at halftime, with such characters as "Harry Canary" and "Mia Hammster" entertaining fans. Call 1-800 THE HERD for tickets, or go to www.HerdZone.com.
Fans are reminded there is no Donnie Jones call-in show this week at Gino's Thursday, due to the team traveling. Also, the Marshall University Alumni Association is have a pep rally Saturday downtown at the Marshall Hall of Fame Cafe' from 5:30-7:30 p.m. before the game. Call 1-800 MU-ALUMX for information on attending or buying tickets from the Alumni office. CSS will televise the game to a Southern regional audience, while radio coverage is from the Thundering Herd/ISP Sports Network - "Herd" in Huntington on flagship stations 93.7 FM, The Dawg, and ESPN 930, WRVC AM, starting at 7 p.m. WRVC AM will join the New England Patriots-Jacksonville Jaguar NFL playoff game following the network sign-off, while The Dawg 93.7 FM will have the "Herd Insider Sportsline" post-game call-in show live from Giovanni's at Third Avenue and 20th Street.