The big night was upon us and although the circumstances looked the same — the venue, the court was all the same as before — the feeling in the air was different.
The court security was enforcing ticket rules a little closer. The staff asked each coach in the VIP seats for their ticket. Yes, even Mike D’Antoni. The baseline, once filled with only the school photographers and maybe one or two extra, was filled. There was barely room. This is what it is all about.
WKU for their part, looked ready. They looked loose and yet focused. Justin Johnson led the defensive drill, talking loudly and directing his guys and setting a level of effort to match. Marshall was too far on the other side of the court for me to get the best read on their preparation and the view was crowded with CBS Sports Network crew doing a pre-game hit. Suffice it to say that this was going to be much different from the relatively leisurely games that took place on Wednesday.
Penava hit two of the Marshall early three threes. Ankle was fine I guess. Hollingsworth did a little acting and threw his head into an arm. That got him a bloody nose that stopped the action for a bit. He played with a plug from then on. A bloody battle is probably too cliché for our purposes so we’ll leave it.
Justin Johnson hit two early threes — no one can accuse him of not showing up for the big moments in this league for his team.
But the same can be said for CJ Burks, who found his way to the cup early an often. After the 14 minute mark the Herd came out hot. Penava hit a three, Darius George got a layup, and Elmore got a bucket. During that stretch WKU had three turnovers — including a shot clock violation. Still a quick bucket and and a couple of free throws from Darius Thompson knotted tings at 23.
By the 7:45 mark Marshall was led by Penava with 11 and WKU had a balanced attack with Lamonte Bearden, Justin Johnson, Darius Thompson, and Dwight Coleby with at least 4 and Johnson and Thompson with 6 and 7, respectively.
The teams traded free throw attempts for a while. They both went on a drought from the field for about three minutes each until JannsonWilliams got a layup. That only brought on another drought for both teams.
The defenses were hounding and adjusting — WKU collapsed on CJ Burks when he drove causing a travel one time that Mike D’Antoni disagreed with. He mentioned something to the ref. Someone joked that tomorrow’s headline will read “Houston Rockets Coach Ejected From CUSA Title Game”. Everyone laughed, including me.
Meanwhile CJ Burks was playing defense also. He denied Drius Thompson the ball so well that TJ Hollingsworth had to try to make something happen and turn the ball over.
At the half Marshall was holding on to a 34 -31 lead. The hallways were filled with intensity — fans looked more nervous than happy. One person who has been here all week in the cheap seats says to me “It definitely is louder here tonight.”
The second half begins with some back-and-forth and Western looks more aggressive. It almost felt like they were on a big run when Marshall was up five. That changed quickly when Jannson Williams flew through the sky to nap a lob from Jarrod West. Marshall was up 42 – 35 at the 15 minute mark.
It was then that Jon Elmore stepped up. Two straight threes — the first with absolutely no hesitation, the second a fading three to the left corner after a choppy Herd possession. In between Justin Johnson answered for his team with a three and a free throw.
All told Elmore had eleven straight for the Herd.
It was an incredible show. He tired a bit after that and missed a few but got hot again later in the middle of the second half. Two more Elmore threes sandwiched a Panava FT and Marshall was rolling but only up 10. He would later say that he was just trying to do something after an awful first half.
Elmore and Penava found lots of success in the pick and roll with Justin Johnson switching. Elmore would pull up with no hesitation, as he had done all year. At the 3:31 mark: yet another pull up three. He had 27 on 7 threes at that point, causing Western to ask for a timeout. Marshall was up 12 and Mike D’Antonio was talking about Jon Elmore to his seatmates.
Everyone was talking about Jon Elmore. Unfortunately that was the last time Marshal would score. Up 67-55, WKU looked done. The timeout by Stansbury must have steadied the squad with stirring words as his Hilltoppers roared back quickly. Josh Anderson got a dunk. Bearden got a couple of free throws. Josh Anderson added two more that had Mike D’Antoni yelling to the ref (yes, the brother and not the head coach of the Herd). Darius Thompson then got a huge layup and then Justin Johnson — seriously, who else? — nailed a three that nearly brought the Ford Center down.
During that stretch Elmore missed a three and turned the ball over while CJ Burks went 0-3 himself (he finished 2/17). A 12 point lead was all but erased by that 11-0 run. The Burks missed three pointer meant WKU had 39 seconds to win the championship. After a couple of passes, the ball fell to Justin Johnson and it seemed fate had put Johnson in a position to become a hero. He pumped and drove inside, but only managed an off-balance shot.
Still, fortune favored Western. They had another chance to win things after the ball was deflected out of bounds by Marshall. This time Bearden tried a teardrop floater that looked like it was going in. It was totally in.
The game was over after Marshall broke the press after. They did enough to win and that is to say Jon Elmore carried them to the win as he has all season. Final state line was 27 points on 9/21 shooting including 7/13 from deep and 6 assists.
WKU’s Justin Johnson, was typically incredible in a losing effort, with 21 points on 5/17 shooting with 12 rebounds on 5/17 shooting including 4/9 from three and 7/9 from the line. He played 39 minutes, giving everything he had. It was just not enough, but only by inches.
Elmore Interview After