— By David Walsh
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Even Marshall University coach Dan D’Antoni had to catch his breath before he could explain the Thundering Herd’s run-and-gun victory over FIU on Saturday night at Cam Henderson Center.
“I’m sweating. I don’t normally do that,” D’Antoni said as he started his news conference after the Herd finally put away the never-say-die Panthers, 105-97, to go to 5-0 in Conference USA and 12-6 overall. “The pace. I’m not surprised. The kids are starting to understand we are the hunted. If I’m the competitor, I’d love to come in here and show how good we are.”
Senior guards C.J. Burks and Jon Elmore combined for 59 points, the same amount the two had in Thursday’s home win over FAU. Burks had 30 points (11-15 from the field and 4-4 at the foul line. Elmore had 29 points despite making only one 3-pointer. He converted 10 of 14 free throws and matched Burks in assists with four.
“The pace was crazy. That’s the way we want to play. That’s our style,” Elmore said. “We’re playing a lot faster. Coach believes in us. It feels good to finally click. We’re having fun.”
FIU (12-7, 3-3 C-USA) came into the game averaging a league-high 87 points a game to 80 for the defending C-USA champs. The Panthers trailed 97-88 with 2:49 left, then pulled within four twice (99-95 and 101-97). The Herd held them off thanks to Elmore hitting six straight free throws in the closing seconds. This is the third game this season the Herd’s reached 100-plus points.
“They play similar to us. We countered it,” Elmore said. “If you try to play our pace, good luck to you.”
Freshman Taevion Kinsey added 20 points and a team-high 9 rebounds for the Herd. He had five second-half slams that more than excited the crowd of 7,330. Rondale Watson came off the bench to hit for 13 and Jarrod West contributed 12.
“I take what they give to me,” Burks said after scoring 30 for the third time this season. “Open up the floor and make plays.”
Kinsey’s night once again included several highlight-reel dunks, one being a reverse slam. All while moving on a sore ankle.
“Play my part,” Kinsey said. “Look off screens. These two guys (Burks and Elmore) say get below and we’ll look for you. That’s what I did. Use me. Throw the ball anywhere and I’ll go get it.”
“Toss it up near the rim and he’ll go get it,” Burks said.
Devon Andrews led FIU with 23 points. Brian Beard Jr. and Willy Nunez Jr. each totaled 16. The Panthers finished with a 68-54 edge in points in the paint and 27-14 in bench points. Osasumwen Osaghae pulled down a game-high 15 rebounds.FIU coach Jeremy Ballard said the game played out as he expected.
“They do things on both sides of the ball that change the game,” Ballard said. “We try to do the same things on both sides. Fast pace, space the court, aggressive defense. They did a better job than us today. They have two awesome seniors. They’re conference champs for a reason.
“We knew it’d be a track meet. That’s what Marshall does. We’re two of the fastest teams in the country. That’s what you saw tonight. That’s where we’re headed. We could never string together enough stops to get us out of that hole.”
Marshall extended its league winning streak to nine and is 7-1 all-time against the Panthers now. The Herd’s a half-game up on North Texas (5-1) in the league standings.
Marshall now gets ready for a busy week. The Herd starts a three-game road trip Monday against Western Kentucky in Bowling Green. The Herd beat the Hilltoppers 70-69 last Saturday at home. Western Kentucky (9-9, 2-3 C-USA) rallied in the second half to beat FAU, 72-66, Saturday at home.
On Thursday, it’s a date against Louisiana Tech in Ruston. Charlotte beat the cold-shooting Bulldogs, 55-40, Saturday. The finale is next Saturday against Southern Miss in Hattiesburg.
“We still have a lot to prove,” Elmore said.