The long wait is over for Marshall after all those long shots by Jon Elmore.
Elmore scored 20 of his 27 points after halftime, with a Conference USA championship game-record seven 3-pointers, and the Thundering Herd are going to their first NCAA Tournament since 1987 after a 67-66 win over Western Kentucky on Saturday night.
“We earned it. We fought all year long,” said Elmore, with a cut-down net draped over his shoulder.
After coming so close last year, losing in the C-USA title game, Elmore kept hitting long 3s in the second half for the Herd (24-10). He made six of his 3s after the break, including 11 straight points in a span of just more than 2 minutes.
“We talked about it before the season this year. We were thinking back about just how the season ended, just the feeling in the locker room,” Elmore said. “Everybody’s heads were down, people were crying, you could have heard a pin drop in there. ... We didn’t want that again.”
This time, tournament MVP Elmore described what he called an awesome scene with 70-year-old coach and Marshall alumnus Dan D’Antoni jumping around with his players.
“You can tell I’m happy. I’m happy for these kids, I’m happy for this school,” said D’Antoni, the self-proclaimed country boy who wears T-shirts under his jacket while coaching. “A long time coming.”
The Herd had a 67-55 lead when Elmore made his last 3 with 3:40 left. Western Kentucky (24-10) then scored the game’s last 11 points before missing two shots in the final 20 seconds. Jannson Williams got the final rebound and managed to call timeout while falling to the court with 7.3 seconds left.
The Hilltoppers, with 10 wins against teams who have won at least 20 games, missed a chance to get back to first NCAA Tournament since 2013. Instead, they wait to see if they get an NIT bid.
“If you leave anything NCAA Tournament in the committee’s hands, you’re in trouble. You have to win. Marshall won. They took it out of anybody’s hands,” WKU coach Rick Stansbury said. “I’m comfortable and confident that our team has done enough and deserves an NIT berth for sure.”
Ajdin Penava added 16 points and nine rebounds for Marshall, which went into the tournament as the No. 4 seed.
Justin Johnson led WKU with 21 points and 12 rebounds, while Josh Anderson and Lamonte Bearden both had 13 points.
Marshall: The Herd were in the Southern Conference when they went to their last NCAA Tournament 31 years ago. ... D’Antoni is a Marshall alumnus, and the brother of Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, who was at the game since his NBA team was in town to play the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday.
Western Kentucky: Freshman guard Taveion Hollingsworth took a shot to the face while going for a rebound on the opening possession, and Stansbury said it’s likely that the freshman broke his nose again. Hollingsworth, who was averaging 13.5 points a game, was 0-for-5 shooting and had two free throws while playing 35 minutes.
“He’s a tough young man,” Stansbury said.
SPREAD IT AROUND
Marshall became the 11th different school to win the C-USA Championship title game in the league’s 23 years.
The Hilltoppers wait to see if they will get to play another game this season.
For the first time in 31 years, Marshall will be watching on Selection Sunday knowing it’s in the NCAA Tournament and waiting to see who will be its first-round opponent.