— By David Walsh
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Senior Day didn’t get off to the best of starts Saturday for the Marshall University men’s basketball team. After pregame ceremonies to honor the departing Christian Thieneman, Rondale Watson, C.J. Burks and Jon Elmore, along with Elmore proposing to Tori Dent at midcourt and her saying yes, visiting Florida Atlantic raced out to 17-point leads (19-2 and 24-7) before 10 minutes had elapsed in the first half.
Not to panic. The Thundering Herd charged back to tie the game at halftime, 28-28, then steadily pulled away in the second half to record a 76-61 victory to make the team 4-0 in Conference USA bonus play and send the 7,097 fans inside Cam Henderson Center home happy. This was the largest deficit the Herd rallied from this season.
“It’s all about flair like it or not,” said Elmore, the all-time leading scorer in C-USA history. “We started slow. We were a little jumpy from the pregame. In the second half we came alive and it started on the defensive end. It’s a great way to go out. We play defense like that we’re tough to beat. We’re not finished yet. We’ve got four in Frisco.”
Elmore was referring to the C-USA Tournament which starts Wednesday in the Ford Center in Frisco, Texas. The Herd (18-13, 11-7 C-USA) is the No. 6 seed and will face No. 11 Rice in the opening round Wednesday at 10 p.m. The top 12 teams in the league qualify for the tournament. The champion gets an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Marshall is defending champion.
Jannson Williams made two free throws with 13:32 left to play to put Marshall ahead to stay, 45-44. The Herd steadily pulled away from that point enjoyed its biggest advantage at 74-56 with 57 seconds left.
“It got a little emotional in the beginning,” Herd coach Dan D’Antoni said. “We start slow and overcame with words of inspiration. Defense was excellent. We took away everything they wanted to do. Jon took a leap of faith and played afterward. I might’ve had to go home. He’s a stronger man than I.”
Sophomore guard Jarrod West led the Herd with 17 points and three steals as he made life tough for FAU’s guards. Elmore had 16 points, Burks and Taevion Kinsey 11 each. The Herd, which extended its winning streak to five, had a 40-30 edge in rebounds against the taller FAU team.Michael Forrest led the Owls (17-14, 8-10 C-USA) with 15 points. Xavian Templeton netted 13 and Anthony Adger 12.
“I do my best to make everything hard for the other team. I take pride in that,” West said. “I try to be aggressive. The seniors did a great job leading us.”
“You think this is your last game here,” Burks said. “It’s been quite a journey.”
Elmore, Burks and Watson are West Virginia natives. Elmore is from Charleston, Burks from Martinsburg and Watson from Lewisburg.
“They’ve taken Marshall to another level,” said D’Antoni, a native of Mullens.
“Heck of a way to go out,” Elmore said. “4-0 in pod play. We needed to play good down the stretch and that’s what we’ve done.”
“Carry it (momentum) to Frisco,” West said.
Elmore made All-Conference first team, Burks third team and Kinsey got a spot on the All-Freshman Team.
Old Dominion won the regular-season title in C-USA and is top seed for the tournament.