For head coach Donnie Jones, he was hoping to play a lot of players, work on making the extra pass to open up the shooters, wanted to play defense and work on the press in front of what he hoped would be a decent Sunday afternoon crowd. Marshall worked on all of those, and looked good doing in front of an electric crowd throughout the second half, as the Thundering Herd opened the 2008-09 season with a win over WVU Tech, out of the Mid-South Conference in the NAIA.
It was the Herd's first game with over 100 points scored since hitting at least 100 points twice to open the Greg White-coached Herd in 2002-03. November 25 of 2002, Marshall beat Kentucky State 112-78 in game two. On December 17, on the eve of the record-setting GMAC Bowl between MU and East Carolina, Marshall dropped a 101-100 loss at Morehead State in overtime. White coached, and later hired, Jones at Pikeville (Ky.) College.
"Our kids played well. It's really a good problem to have a lot depth," said Jones. "Last year, you looked down the bench and you didn't have guys to put in. Now, you've got so many guys to put in you're confused over who to put in."
While the 53 point win was the biggest win since White's 2001-02 team beat D-II Shepherd College by 50 points, 96-46 (11-26-01), Marshall beat Bluefield State to open the 1997-98 season by 58 points to open White's second season as head coach on November 22, 1997. Herd coach Bob Zuffelato's 1982-83 team set the record for the biggest win in the Henderson Center in its second season, when the Herd beat CCNY (City College of New York) by 59 points, 113-54 (Dec. 28, 1982). MU coach Billy Donovan had a 53-point win when his second squad at Marshall opened the season with the most points scored by MU in the Henderson Center, a 124-71 win over Milligan (Nov. 25, 1995).But in this opener, Jones was impressed with every player on his team not just playing hard but how all 13 scored against a Tech team the Herd's coach has a lot of respect for. "Our kids all gave us good energy," said Jones. "Give West Virginia Tech credit, Coach Bob Williams has done a great job there with his team." Marshall is now 17-1 in Henderson Center openers, 75-22 in all openers.
The attendance for the opener was 4,271 on a 2 p.m. Sunday afternoon game that opened the season, and they raised the roof for ten threes by the Herd, for Adam Williams's electric late dunk and for scoring 100 points in the opener. "How about this place? You talk about Marshall basketball," said Jones, "for this crowd to be here on a Sunday afternoon on November 16, to be out there cheering like they were, amazing. We told some of the freshman about the way this place could be when we were recruiting them and after the game, they were like, ‘Wow, coach, this is the first game.' We want to thank our fans for turning out like that."
Marshall had five players end up with double-digit scoring. Returning starters Senior forward Markel Humphrey had 14 points on 4-of-5 from the floor and 6-for-7 at the line, in addition to three assists, no turnovers and three steals. Junior forward Tyler Wilkerson scored 13 points, grabbed eight boards and blocked three shots. Returning guard Daryl Merthie had ten points, four rebounds, three assists and a shot blocked.
"You know what the good thing is, we talked about not being selfish, and you look at the stats and we had 20 assists on 40 made baskets. I am really proud of the team." One of the newcomers also hit double figures and also led MU in assists, as Purdue transfer Chris Lutz had 14 points (3-of-5 from three), four assists and two steals. Freshman guard Shaquille Johnson led the team with 19 points in his first collegiate start, hitting 6-of-8 from the floor, 4-of-5 from three and 3-of-4 at the line. Freshman point guard Damier Pitts had five points, two assists and a steal in his first start at Marshall.
Other new players who shined included 6-foot-10 sophomore center Marcus Goode, who led the team in his first collegiate game with 11 rebounds and scored eight points in only 12 minutes played; Octavius Spann, a junior transfer from Georgetown, had six points, two boards and an assist; freshman Dago Pena had five points and three rebounds; freshman Kore White score two points, grabbed five boards, had two blocks and a steal; and sophomore Brandon Powell, a transfer from Florida, had four points, two rebounds and three assists in his Marshall debut.
Returner sophomore starter Tirrell Baines, an All-Conference USA Freshman team member last year, came off the bench with eight points and seven rebounds in 19 minutes, along with two assists and a steal, while junior Adam Williams' dunk electrified the crowd for his only points, but he also had two rebounds and a steal.
For Tech, Sam Robertson, a 6-foot-6 senior from Jacksonville, Fla., put on a show with 12-of-20 shooting to lead all scorers with 24 points and added a team-best eight rebounds. Victor McGee, a 6-foot-1 senior from Jackson, Tenn. was the Golden Bears only other scorer in double figures with 12 points. Tech turned the ball over 23 times, 13 on steals by Marshall, and those turnovers lead to 22 MU points.
The Herd dominated the glass on the smaller Bears, with only one player as tall as 6-foot-7. MU had 57 rebounds, 23 offensively for 29 second-chance points, to just 29 boards for WVU Tech. The Herd shot 54.1 percent from the floor, hitting 40-of-74 from the floor, and 10-of-22 from three (45.5 percent) while holding Tech to just 23-for-67 (34.3 percent) in field goals and 4-of-18 from three (22.2 percent). Tech had only one field goal and just seven points in the last 11 minutes of the game.
Jones knows it will get tougher when the Herd arrives in Daytona Beach to continue the Glenn Wilkes Classic with Morgan State on Friday at 2 p.m. Games with Wisconsin-Green Bay (Saturday at 2 p.m.) and Ole Miss (4 p.m. Sunday). "It really is a challenge this week," said Jones. "The thing we told our guys tonight was to come out and play at our level, do what we do, establish our idenenity as a team. Now we will play three very good teams over three days, and that's what the NCAA Tournament is like. We'll get a taste of that this weekend."
Speaking of the NCAA Tournament, FoxSports.com is projecting the Herd as a 12-seed, facing a No. 5 Florida team. That would be quite a game for the Herd against the Gators of Billy Donovan, who kept Jones off the staff of Dwight Freeman when "Billy Ball" came to Huntington in 1994-96. Jones helped Donovan and former MU/UF assistants John Phelphrey and Anthony Grant to coach the Gators to back-to-back national titles, and Jones left after the second title two season ago to coach the Herd, preceeded by Phelphrey, now at Arkansas, while Grant is at Virginia Commenwealth. Guard Brandon Powell came north with Jones to play for the Herd over the next two years. Fox also likes C-USA teams Memphis (last year's national runner-up) as a four-seed and UAB as an 11-seed for the "March Madness '09."
Friday's and Sunday's game will be heard on the Thundering Herd/ISP Sports Network, with former WMUL 88.1 FM (the MU student station) award-winning announcer Vince Payne sitting in for Steve Cotton on play-by-play while Cotton travels with football to the game in Houston, Texas against the Rice Owls, a 1 p.m. air time on Saturday and 3 p.m. kickoff on the TH/ISP Sports Network.
Saturday's basketball game with the Phoenix of UW-GB will only be broadcast on ESPN 930 AM (WRVC) in Huntington, with a 1:45 p.m. air-time, 2 p.m. tip. Live updates will be fed from the basketball game to the football network broadcast, heard in Huntington on 93.7, The Dawg (WDGG). The AM will join the network at the end of the basketball game, and the post-game call-in show will be on both Herd teams.