I finally had a chance to leave Happy Valley and see some mid-major basketball with neither team being Penn State. It's about a seven-hour drive from State College, Pa., to Huntington, W.Va., so I stopped last night just outside Pittsburgh to visit the in-laws on the way.
From the in-laws, it was a four-hour drive to Huntington. One interesting note is that the Cam Henderson Center does not show up on Google Maps, so my phone's GPS was useless and I had to find my way to the arena. Luckily, I knew it was by the football stadium, so I just plugged that in as my final destination.
I got to town quite early, 4 p.m. for a 7 p.m. game, so I spent some time driving around. Huntington is an older town that has seen better days, but if you head over the river, you will find a nice revitalized section that includes the Marshall Hall of Fame Café, a real treat for sports fans. It has hundreds of pieces of Marshall memorabilia on display and good food for a decent price.
I highly recommend that you eat before getting to the Henderson Center, because the food is a bit expensive and the only substantial food items were hot dogs ($3.50), Philly cheesesteaks ($6.50) and Italian sausage ($7.50).
The Henderson Center was built in 1981 and underwent a $5 million renovation in 1999, lowering the capacity to 9,048 seats. Fans enter from the concourse right in the middle of the seating sections, with about 20 rows going both up and down from the portal.
The player introduction featured the fans wildly waving green glow sticks, which were for sale on the way into the arena.
With the students on semester break and the American-style football team playing a bowl game the next day in Florida, the band, cheerleaders, dance team and mascot were all missing, yet the place was still rocking. Coming from an always empty Bryce Jordan Center, I thought it was quite a nice change.
Belmont was coached by Brian Ayers, who was making his head coaching debut due to 27-year veteran head coach Rick Byrd's suspension by the Atlantic Sun Conference for being tossed from the Bisons last game for receiving two technical fouls. Byrd was on the trip but had to stay at the team hotel per conference rules.
The game started strong for Marshall despite the fact it was playing its third game in five days. A couple of alley-oops really got the fans rolling, and the Herd managed to maintain a lead throughout by dominating the boards.
After a few minutes of play, the teams seemed to get away from fundamentals, and a rash of turnovers followed. A quick Belmont timeout seemed to settle both teams, and Belmont hit two quick three-point shots to pull with one. However, the hustle of Marshall continued to be the story as it took a 46-39 lead into the locker room.
The second half featured a long three-point drought for Belmont and saw Marshall stretch its lead to 11 before the Bison made a run to get the score to 77-76 with under four minutes to play.
The drama was just beginning. Belmont took the lead 84-83 and quieted the crowd, but Damier Pitts responded with a layup for Marshall to give it an 85-84 lead. Mick Hedgepeth missed two free throws for Belmont with 17 seconds left, and the race to foul Marshall players was on. The teams traded two free throws a piece to get the score to 87-86 with seven seconds left, and a Belmont foul sent Marshall's Pitts back to the line.
Surprisingly, Pitts missed both free throw attempts, and Belmont had one final shot, a free run at the basket for Kerron Johnson. His layup attempt was a bit too hard and fell off the rim at the buzzer, leaving Belmont heartbroken and Marshall fans cheering in delight as they exited the building after a thrilling victory for the home team.
The final missed layup.
That was absolutely one of the best games I have witnessed in a long time. Now I have to get back in the car and drive back to the in-laws for the evening.