Written by Justin Prince.
Up three with 36.2 seconds to go in an NCAA Tournament game against fourth seeded Wichita State, the Thundering Herd had the ball under its own basket and Jon Elmore found Ajdin Penava for a huge slam dunk for an 80-75 lead.
Wichita State had another couple of chances but shots wouldn’t fall and thirteenth seeded Herd shocked the Shockers winning its first ever NCAA Tournament game in school history by a final score of 81-75. Marshall had previously been 0-5 in the tournament and hadn’t had an opportunity to play in the Big Dance since 1987.
“It was a win by committee,” Elmore, who finished with 27 points and four assists, said. “I think everyone got involved and made some plays. I hit some big shots but everyone was involved, everyone contributed something.”
Some of the biggest contributions came on the defensive end for the normally offensive minded Herd. Marshall forced the Shockers into 15 turnovers, which the Thundering Herd converted into 27 points.
Jarrod West and C.J. Burks led the defensive charge as both came up with four steals each including a pick pocket by Burks that led to a breakaway dunk and gave Marshall a two possession lead with less than two minutes to play in the game.
The win moves Marshall onto the round of 32 and into a potential match up with in-state rival West Virginia. The Herd and the Mountaineers used to play annually in the Chesapeake Energy Capital Classic but the series ended in 2015 under some controversy.
WVU, which had won five straight in the classic, felt that it could schedule more advantageous matchups than an out of conference clash with the state’s only other Division I school.
Marshall coach Dan D’Antoni and the Herd brass wanted the series to continue but the Mountaineers were steadfast in ending it. At the time, basketball pundits and Mountaineer head coach Bob Huggins laughed at D’Antoni for his comments following a three-point loss to WVU in 2014.
“I think the series should continue,” D’Antoni said. “I heard suggestions for a home and home. Here’s my suggestion: Morgantown, Charleston and then Charleston, Huntington and just keep it that way. If they back out now they’re afraid of us. We’re coming back.”
Huggins’ response came with his infamous sarcasm.
“The most laughable thing,” Huggins said. “’We’re back.’ That was their sixth loss in a row. We’re back alright. Honestly it becomes laughable. It’s laughable. So they lose by three, “we’re back.” It’s their sixth loss in a row. Three of them at home.”
What Huggins failed to understand was that D’Antoni’s declaration wasn’t about the present but about the future that he knew he was building.
Not only is the Thundering Herd back, but also Marshall has surpassed any place it’s ever been before by advancing in the NCAA tournament for the first time.
No one is laughing any longer at D’Antoni and his band of overlooked West Virginia guards, European bigs and a couple of scrappy freshman from down south. Instead, the entire country is sizing up the Herd’s dancing shoes to see if the glass slipper might just fit a gritty, up-tempo team from Huntington that hasn’t been dancing in 31 years.
“No one has given us much of a chance all year,” Elmore said. “But we know what we’re capable and we’re confident in each other. We just love to play together. We just want to keep things rolling now.”