"I knew it was going to be a battle," said Jones. "I was worried about this game, especially with young guys and not to take anything away from Cumberlands because they played a great game. They have great players, and that's the reason they're the number one team in the country in NAIA. They didn't just get it given to them."
Markel Humphrey had two dunks late in the game -including this one over Cumberlands' Dustin Fothergill- that were key in preserving The Herd's 80-70 win. photo by Greg Perry/HI staff
Marshall (6-4) trailed the University of the Cumberlands (10-2) for much of the first half and were down 13-9 with 11:26 left in the opening stanza. Two Marcus Goode dunks, followed by a lay-up and two of the many free throws Tirrell Baines would hit in the game tied the game at 18-18 with 7:17 to go. Tyler Wilkerson scored six straight points for the Herd to put Marshall up to stay, 24-20, but not one time did the Patriots give in to the rout most Marshall fans had come in expecting.
UC is the No. 1 team in the NAIA, a division the Herd was a member of that league, then called the NAIB, from 1933-1953 when MU joined the Mid-American Conference. Old-time Marshall fans will remember the Herd advanced to the 1937, 1947 and 1948 NAIA Tournaments in Kansas City, Missouri, where it is still held today, and won the National Championship with five wins in six days and a school record 32 wins against only five losses for Cam Henderson in the 1946-47 season.
"With the break for the new guys, and not knowing who (the Patriots) are, you worry about a team that has the players to beat you," said Jones. "We knew this was going to be their Super Bowl. As a coaching staff we tried to create the energy the team would have normally. I wanted to play the bench more tonight but they weren't scoring, and because we weren't stopping anybody, we needed to score. It was one of those nights where you have to grind it out and get a win, and that's what we did."
Damier Pitts fought through the defense of Cumberlands' Dustin Fothergill in the second half of The Herd's 80-70 win on Saturday night. photo by Greg Perry/HI staff
The Herd led by five at half after getting out to a 10-point lead on a pair of Chris Lutz three-pointers down the stretch. But as was the case throughout the second half, Cumberlands would battle back to cut halftime to 35-30. A little over four minutes into the second half, a pair of Markel Humphrey lay-ups put the Herd up 10 again, but Josh Phillips of the Patriots answered with one of the seven threes UC made on the night and Marshall would not lead by ten again until late in the contest.
"I was really proud of Markel Humphrey down the stretch," said Jones. "We put him down at the post, took the other guys out and got him the ball down low. He did a good job."
The Herd held UC's leading scorer, 6-foot-7 Luke Fitzgerald in check in the first half with six points and six rebounds, but the senior from Cleveland, Ohio, would score 14 points and grab five more rebounds in the second half to finish with a double-double of 20 points and 11 rebounds. Also in double figures was Cumberlands guard (or MU quarterback?) Chad Byron, who scored 13 points, and Dustin Fothergill, who hit 3-of-7 from three and scored 14 points.
"We're still not playing well defensively, although our goal was to shoot 30 free throws and we shot 37," said Jones. "But we're not going to compete in our league the way we are playing defensively. We got to be able to become a better defensive team."
Marshall's big men made the difference in this game. Humphrey scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half, including a pair of crowd-pleasing dunks in the final three minutes of the game on 6-of-9 shooting. Baines led the Herd with seven rebounds and scored a season-best 21 points, mostly at the free throw line.
Marshall hit 30-of-37 at the free throw line, making 81.1 percent and topping 80 percent at the line for the third time in the season. Baines had a career-best 13 made free throws on a career-best 16 attempts.
"Tirrell really played well," said Jones of his sophomore forward. "We got the ball in the post, and he was active. We knew they would be doubling Tyler, so we got the ball to Tirrell for some easy buckets or free throws, which he shot well."
Also shooting well at the line was Wilkerson, who hit 7-of-10 at the charity stripe and scoring 15 points. Damier Pitts added 10 points and five assists from the point while backcourt mate, and fellow frosh, Shaquille Johnson scored six of his eight points in the final eight minutes after being shutout in the last game. Goode had four points and Lutz was 2-for-3 from three and scored eight points also.
Jones knows it has been tough on the freshmen, who came in to MU in July and who haven't had many days off since. Johnson may have hit a bit of a wall, as team's start to see his double-digit scoring on video from early in the season. "Johnson was starting to get scouted a little bit. He's a good basketball player, but he doesn't always need to score for us to be a good player," said Jones.
"He's got to learn that. When he scores, that's good, but we got some energy when he came off the bench. We have to get Chris Lutz some more minutes and some better looks down the road, as well."
Marshall shot well, as did Cumberlands, much like the Herd's recent win over Ohio when both teams topped 60 percent from the field. The Herd hit 61.9 percent in the second half (13-of-21) and 52.2 percent for the game, making 24-of-46 from the field, despite just nailing 2-of-9 three-point shots. Both were by Lutz. UC hit 46.7 percent for the game (28-of-60) and stayed close with 7-of-18 from three, a percentage of 39 percent that was even better before a couple of desperation shots at the end of each half.
But the game was won, or lost, at the line. While the Herd made 30 free throws, Cumberlands only got to the line for 7-of-8 in the game, and were whistled for 26 fouls to just 12 on the Herd. Rebounding, which both teams had big margins on the season over opponents, was dead even at 29-29 and even turnovers - 13 for MU and 15 for UC - were close, just like the game.
Marshall will finish up the pre-Christmas portion of the schedule with a short trip up Route 35 West to Dayton, Ohio to play the University of Dayton Flyers. Dayton is off to a 9-1 start on the season, beating Auburn, 60-59 in overtime; beat Marquette, 89-75; beat Troy, Akron, and UNC-Greensboro Saturday night, 75-44, at Dayton. The only loss was at Creighton, 77-59, who are coached by former Herd head coach Dana Altman. "Dayton is a great road test, a packed arena, but our team's excited and we look forward to the game," said Jones. Tipoff is 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 23, with the Herd Insider Pre-Game Show at 7 p.m. on ESPN 930 AM/The Dawg, 93.7 FM, and pre-game show on the Thundering Herd/ISP Sports Network at 7:30 p.m. with Steve Cotton. The Herd will next be at home for another Sunday game on Dec. 28, at 2 p.m., against Tennessee State.