Marshall (7-6) had not shot well and turned the ball over too many times in the first half, going 0-for-10 at the three-point line and turning the ball over eight times. Three shots were blocked. San Diego had gone from a two-point lead, 17-15, with just over eight minutes left after Wilkerson hit a lay-up. Wilkerson hit another lay-up with 2:18 and MU down by 17 after the Herd had missed eight shots in a row.
The Herd was just 1-for-10 in the last eight minutes of the first half, and trailed by 22 points at half, 39-17. San Diego had shot 62 percent in the first half, had only two turnovers and had held the Herd to its worst first half of the year. In fact, it is the worst half in two seasons. Marshall scored just 18 points in the second half of a loss to then No. 2 Memphis last season in Huntington.
"The thing our program has to do is step up and make shots," said Jones, "and defend when you don't make them. I think it was most disappointing as a coach is that it was our veterans – Markel Humphrey, Chris Lutz and Tirrell Baines, they didn't make shots and they had open looks. The trio ended the night just 2-for-15 combined, 0-of-9 from three.
"I'm not caught up in the making the shots as much as I am in effort and energy. I am concerned that those guys have got to show up for us. Tirrell doesn't show up for us tonight. Tyler hadn't showed up in the last several nights, and I was proud of his effort tonight," said Jones of the junior who had 22 points and 15 rebounds. "I'm proud of the no-quit effort of some of the guys who came off the bench, even when we got down by a big margin. We have just got to take positives from tonight and move on."
It just appeared to be more of the same in the second half. Three of Marshall's starters – Humphrey, Lutz and Baines – had scored just four points combined in the first half and making just 2-of-12 shots. Head coach Donnie Jones had pulled the starters in the final minute of the first half and then started his bench players looking for a spark in the second half. The group of juniors Darryl Merthie and Adam Williams and freshmen Kore White, Dago Pena and Shaquille Johnson got the second half start.
"Those guys will play more," said Jones of his freshman group. "They give us energy, they are starting to grow up and they will play more. They will make freshman mistakes sometimes, but in the second half Damier (Pitts) started attacking. He didn't attack any early in the game and we waited too long to do that. I thought Kore White and Adam Williams came in and gave us some of that energy." Pitts scored 14 points, all in the second half.
Two other freshmen also lit it up in the second half. Pena had ten points, hitting 2-of-3 from three, and Johnson had 11 points, his first double-digit game since 15 points at Boston University in that road win. Johnson scored in double figures six of his first seven games at Marshall, then did not score in two of the last five and accounted for just 20 points in those contests.
Despite the energy Jones was looking for out of his bench players to start the second 20 minutes, four fouls in the first three minutes of the half would lead to a couple of old-fashion three-point plays by USD senior Gyno Pomare, plus a three-pointer by guard Devin Ginty. Soon, San Diego had the Herd down by 29 points, 48-19, with 17:21 to go.Back in to the game came Wilkerson, a bright spot for the Herd in the first half with ten points and four boards. The junior from Lexington, Ky. had not played well in the last two games, at Dayton and against Tennessee State, with four points and seven rebounds combined in those two games. On this night, Wilkerson continued to play well in the second half, but Marshall still found itself down by 31 points, at 66-35, with just under eight minutes to play.
Wilkerson would grab a miss on a rebound, then hit knock down five-of-six free throws to cut the lead to 28 points. The Toreros suddenly found themselves fouling the Herd, as they committed their ninth four to send Wilkerson to the line, and then six more fouls in the next three minutes that allowed Wilkerson to hit two more, Pitts to knock down four and Johnson 1-of-2 and Marshall was down a still formidable 22 points, 69-47, with 5:21 left.
After two more USD turnovers around a 1-for-2 trip to the line for Ginty, Pitts nailed a three and Pena scored after a steal and suddenly the media timeout for the 3:26 mark found the Herd now down 18 points, 70-52, out-scoring the Toreros by 17-4 since the eight minute mark. Out of the time out, USD's Rob Jones missed both free throws and Pena nailed a three with 3:13 to go and the score fell to 70-55.
A group of 100 or so Southern California Marshall alumni were now cheering loudly behind the bench while the San Diego fans were looking at each other in disbelief. "I thank the fans for coming out," said Jones of the Herd boosters who made up about 10 percent of the 1,129 at the game. "Marshall is a special place with great support, and this crowd is part of what makes (that support) so great. Our kids really fed off the energy of the Marshall fans, and I was really proud of that."
Matt Dorr of San Diego, a 70 percent free throw shooter, would miss two more free throws and Pena hit another lay-up and MU was down 13 points with 2:37 to play. After a Marshall time out, Ginty missed a three, Wilkerson picked up another rebound and fed White. The freshman, who played seven minutes, missed his shot but grabbed the rebound and hit the follow-up to cut the lead to 11 points at 70-59, a 22-4 run extended by MU. With two minutes to play, Dorr and Ginty found the range at the line to put USD up by 15 with 1:49 to go, but the Herd would continue the comeback.
Pitts took another rebound by Wilkerson and laid the ball in and hit the free throw to shorten the lead again to 12, 74-62. After Jones made one of two free throws, Johnson hit a three and MU was down just ten, 75-65, and took another time out with 1:13 to go. Dorr missed two more at the line, and Wilkerson grabbed his 15th rebound of the evening, tying his career-best mark and extending his ninth career double-double. He also had 15 rebounds against UCF last February, and 14 earlier this year against Ole Miss.
Johnson hit another three off that final rebound, and with 52 seconds to play the Herd was within seven points of San Diego, 75-68, after trailing 66-35 with eight minutes left. But that would be as close as the Herd could get. Pomare hit two free throws to put USD up nine again. Pitts made two more free throws himself, as the freshman point guard was a perfect 9-for-9 at the line after going 0-for-2 from the floor in the first half.
In the last 30 seconds, Marshall missed three tough three-point attempts while San Diego made 3-of-4 of its final free throws to win a laugher that turned into a nail-biter, 80-70 over the Thundering Herd. MU would end the night shooting 40 percent, 22-of-55, after just making 7-of-24 shots in the first half and going 0-for-10 from three. The Herd also out-rebounded the Toreros, 34-to-28, but allowed USD to shot 58 percent in the game, making 16-of-26 in the first half (62 percent) and 26-of-45 in the contest.
"We had a chance, but we missed some tough threes," said Jones. "Our kids didn't quit, and that's a very good San Diego team that just beat an SEC team on the road." San Diego went to Mississippi State back on Tuesday night and beat the Bulldogs of the Southeastern Conference, 64-61, in overtime. "We just cannot get down like this against a good team and then have to try to come back on the road to win it."
USD beat Kentucky at UK last year. Then the Toreros knocked off UConn in the NCAA Tournament, which came after winning the West Coast Conference. The Toreros would pick up an overtime win over St. Mary's and a championship game upset of a ranked Gonzaga team to win the WCC in 2008.
San Diego was led in scoring by Pomare, who had 20 points and extended his all-time best scoring career at USD to 1,500 points even. Four other Toreros were in double figures, led by Jones with 13 points. Jones, Ginty and Dorr each had five rebounds.
Speaking of tough, the Thundering Herd will now turn its attention to Conference USA, except for the Capital City Classic doubleheader for the MU men and women against in-state rival West Virginia on Jan. 14 at the Charleston (W.Va.) Civic Center. Up first is the national runner-up from last season, the Memphis Tigers. "Now the real season begins with conference play. If you are going to compete in a league, you might as well start with the best. We get a chance on Wednesday to go on the road and compete with a team that is one of the best in nation and the best in our league for quite a few years."
Memphis is 8-3 to open the year and second in wins in C-USA this year to date behind the very hot Houston Cougars. The Tigers plays Lamar on CSS TV Saturday at 8 p.m. (eastern) before getting ready to open C-USA play with the Herd at FedEx Arena in Memphis, Tenn. on Jan. 7, a 9 p.m. eastern tip. Local pre-game for the Huntington area is 8 p.m. on The Dawg, 93.7 FM and ESPN 930 AM in Huntington, while the game will air, starting at 8:30 with the network pre-game, on the Thundering Herd/ISP Sports Network including the flagships and 18 other stations.