Written by Justin Prince.
The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders have suffered just two conference losses this season, but they both came at the hands of the Thundering Herd.
The Herd put its back against the wall with a loss to the University of Alabama at Birmingham on Thursday night just before heading into Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to take on the #24 ranked Blue Raiders in the regular season finale.
With the all-important fourth seed in the Conference USA tournament on the line, Marshall found itself in a must win situation against its arch nemesis Middle Tennessee.
The Blue Raiders came in with only one loss in CUSA play, a 10-point defeat to the Thundering Herd back in January. But that game was inside the friendly confines of the Cam Henderson Center and Middle hadn’t suffered a home conference loss since January of 2016.
That didn’t matter to Jon Elmore and C.J. Burks who led the Herd with 23 and 20 points respectively and Marshall knocked off nationally ranked Middle Tennessee 76-67 in front of a stunned Murphy Center crowd.
“I think it was my great coaching,” Marshall coach Dan D’Antoni joked after the game. “No. I didn’t do anything special, I just said lets go win it and that’s what they did. The effort was unbelievable tonight.”
Part of that big Herd effort was the freshman duo of Jannson Williams and Darius George. The two freshmen provided a huge spark for Marshall off the bench combining for 21 points, 13 rebounds, and three steals. Williams was a perfect 5-for-5 from the free-throw line.
“Those two were outstanding,” D’Antoni said. “They’ve really been coming along here of late and just playing good ball and giving us good minutes. Those two are starting to get it going and that is going to be really important for us heading into the conference tournament.”
Williams’ and George’s contributions were a big reason for the Thundering Herd being able to outrebound the Blue Raiders 39-34–especially on a night that Ajdin Penava struggled with foul trouble, scoring just six points and grabbing only five rebounds.
Another key area was the foul line. Marshall never found its three point range going just 4-22 from deep, but shot an outstanding 22-27 from the charity stripe, while Middle Tennessee was an uncharacteristically bad 13-26.
The Thundering Herd will now enter the CUSA tournament as the fourth seed and will receive a bye into the quarterfinals on March 8 where Marshall will face the winner of fifth seeded UTSA and the twelfth seed UTEP.
If the Herd wins in the quarterfinals it will likely set up game number three with the Blue Raiders in the CUSA tournament semifinals. Marshall lost to Middle Tennessee in the conference final last year.