— By David Walsh
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Teams want to be playing at or near their best going into their conference tournament.
The Marshall University men’s basketball team made a strong case Wednesday night, coming from 12 points down in the first half to run/gun its way past Florida International, 94-78, in front of 5,822 fans inside Cam Henderson Center.
The Thundering Herd (17-13, 10-7 C-USA) improved to 3-0 in the Bonus Play part of its schedule. Marshall had 12 days off before it started the final swing with wins at Louisiana Tech and North Texas. The Herd closes out pod play Saturday against Florida Atlantic at Henderson Center. It’s Senior Day and the opening tip is noon.
With the win, Marshall has locked in sixth place in the C-USA standings (it could move no higher) and secured a first-round date against Rice when the league tournament begins May 13 in Frisco, Texas. The Herd is defending tournament champion.
“The pod worked for us and against us,” Herd coach Dan D’Antoni said. “We have one of the three-best league records (officially fourth after Wednesday). It (break) did give us some rest. You can see it helped.”
“Marshall’s a really good basketball team right now,” Panthers coach Jeremy Ballard said. “We try a lot to emulate what they do. We started well, but late in the half wasn’t solid enough. We allowed them to make a run and the momentum carried over into the second half.”
FIU (18-12, 9-8 C-USA) held a 42-30 lead with 4:21 left in the first half, but the Herd closed with a rush and led 47-46 at the break. The lead grew to 21 at 89-68 on a three-point shot by Rondale Watson with 4:28 to play. The Herd is now 8-1 against the Panthers in the all-time series.
“They hurt us with penetration in the first half,” D’Antoni said of the Panthers, who had their win streak end at four. “We sluffed off better, took that away. When you have five players in double figures, it’s a team effort. We played as a unit. We’ll see how far that takes us down the road.”
Guard C.J. Burks led the Herd with 21 points. Jon Elmore, who became C-USA’s all-time leading scorer in its win Saturday at North Texas, had 18 as did freshman Taevion Kinsey. Darius George added 14 and Watson 10. In the first meeting on Jan. 19 at home, the Herd outgunned the Panthers, 104-97.
“We’re on our revenge tour,” Elmore said. “Things were rocky early in the season, halfway through, three-fourths the way through. We turned it on and hit our stride. The young guys really contribute. Play our best down the stretch and we can give any team (in the league) a run.”
Burks believes the Herd’s relentless attack at both ends of the floor took its toll on FIU.
“That type of speed they’ve not seen,” Burks said. “We’re used to it. Keep playing, teams try to keep up and it’s a matter of time before they wear down.”
FIU held a 60-44 scoring edge in points in the paint. The Herd prevailed in the rest of the categories, 17-11 in points off turnovers, 19-14 second-chance points, 13-8 in fast-break points and 30-25 in bench scoring. Kinsey and Watson combined 28 of the 30. In the 3-point category, Marshall connected on 10 to two for the Panthers.
“We locked in in practice way harder,” Kinsey said. “It’s time to turn it around. Everybody bought in.”
The Herd had just nine turnovers.
“We’re pretty good at that,” D’Antoni said of taking care of the ball. “We probably shoot so fast, turnovers are going toward the rim. The guards are the show.”
Osasumwen Osaghae paced FIU with 19 points and 11 rebounds for a double-double and played only 16 minutes. Brian Beard Jr., totaled 12, seven under his average. Devon Andrews and Antonio Daye Jr. each scored 10.
The Panthers close out the regular season Saturday at home against North Texas.
“We’ve got to grow from this,” Ballard said.
The C-USA Tournament continues through March 16 and the winner gets the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.