— By David Walsh
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — A long basketball season for the Marshall University men’s basketball team has one game left.
C.J. Burks converted four straight free throws in the closing seconds to lift the Thundering Herd to an 80-78 win over Hampton University in a CollegeInsider.com Tournament semifinal game Tuesday night at Cam Henderson Center.
Marshall (22-14) will meet Wisconsin-Green Bay for the title at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Henderson Center. CBS SportsNetwork will air the game live. The Phoenix edged Texas Southern, 87-86, in Tuesday’s other semifinal.
Marshall, which began the season in August with an exhibition trip to the Bahamas, is seeking its first national tournament crown since 1947 when that Herd team coached by Cam Henderson won the NAIB title in Kansas City.
“It’s going to be cool,” Herd senior guard Jon Elmore said. “Trying to cut down the nets and hang another banner.”
Elmore finished with a game-high 28 points with 23 coming in the first half when the Herd opened a 51-38 lead. He made 7 of 12 from the field, including 6 of 9 from three-point range. He hit just 2-of-10 shots in the second half as the Pirates rallied to make things exciting down the stretch for the 4,122 fans.
Hampton and Marshall went back and forth the final 10 minutes of the second half. The Pirates drew even for the final time at 76-76 on a dunk by Trevond Barnes off a pick and roll with 54 seconds left. With 34 seconds to play, Burks drew a foul on a drive to the basket and made both free throws for a 78-76 lead.
Hampton’s Kalin Fisher missed a long three-point attempt with 10 seconds to go, Burks got the rebound, got fouled and nailed both free throws for an 80-76 lead. Fisher made a layup for the Pirates with two seconds to go.
“You get in a tournament and that’s what happens,” Marshall coach Dan D’Antoni said of the Pirates (18-17). “They played hard. They’ve got some athletes who can put the ball in the basket. I wasn’t comfortable at the half. You don’t quit in tournament games. We were slowed in the second half for whatever reason. We didn’t move the ball like I like.
“But we’ve got a chance for these guys to compete one more time. We started in August. This has been like an NBA season. They’ll be ready.”
Burks scored 10 of the Herd’s last 11 points and totaled 17 for the game. Barnes paced the Pirates with 18 points. Fisher added 16, Jermaine Marrow 15 and Greg Heckstall 14 along with a game-high 15 rebounds for a double-double.
“They’re a tough team. We knew that coming in,” Elmore said. “We had a couple of lapses and they made some runs. I’m glad we made the one at the end.”
Burks said he felt comfortable at the foul line knowing the season was on the line.
“Coaches stress that (free throws) so much,” Burks said. “I was focused and knocked both pairs down.”
Pirates coach Edward Joyner Jr. said the Pirates showed composure down the stretch. This was the sixth straight season the Big South school reached the postseason.
“It was a tale of two halves,” Joyner said. “In the end, they made one more than we did. We had options (on the last miss). Kalin and Jermaine are my two best players. Get the ball in their hands and I’m happy with the shot they take.”
Joyner said his players made things more difficult for Elmore in the second half.
“We put them back on their heels,” Joyner said. “We guarded Elmore, tried to make his shot harder and some of his shots were contested. Make the others produce.”
“It felt good,” Elmore, the leading scorer in Marshall and Conference USA history, said. “Doing what we practice. I’m lucky to be in that situation. Get the motors going, attack and take what they give me.”
D’Antoni and his players plan to watch some tape of the Texas Southern-Green Bay game on Wednesday and put together a plan at practice and refine in the Thursday shootaround.
“The crowd was big for us tonight,” Burks said. “It was rockin’ in here. It’s tough on teams who come here.”