Too often, sports are said to be about the little things. Coaches accurately yet tiredly point to the little things as the difference between victory and defeat on any given night. If we had cut down on our penalties. If we had rebounded the ball a little better. If our line changes were just a little quicker. Tonight in Huntington, the cliché that's more worn out than Brent Musburger's welcome reared its ugly head yet again -- it's the little things.
I hopped in my car and left directly from work in Dayton, Ohio to traverse the wide swaths of rural America that make up southeastern part of the state. Huntington is located just across the Ohio River on the West Virginia side; it is home to the Marshall Thundering Herd, a strong Conference USA team who hasn't tasted success for the 25 or so years prior to this one. Luckily for them, this year is definitely their year, and their showdown with Belmont was listed as the Ken Pomeroy FanMatch top game for the night. Seeing as how attending this contest would put me at five straight for the week (Monday through Friday, the four others being in Dayton) I decided to make the trip.
Upon going to a college town I've never been to before, I always check out Urban Spoon to find the best eats I possibly can. Huntington's top restaurant was a place called Fat Patty's located next to the Cam Henderson Center (where I would be taking in the evening's game). Apparently everyone else in town has caught on to this place, because I walked into the bulilding 90 minutes before tip and was a disappointed to find it jam-packed with no hope of a seat opening up for me before the game. Feeling a bit glum, I headed around the corner toward a small bar and grille called the Inn Between.
I tugged on the sticky door out front and entered to find a townie bar boasting a food prep area that consisted of little more than a griddle in the corner. It didn't take long to realize that this was a bar first and foremost, and they occasionally served food to capitalize on the game day crowds. Feeling very out of place in my collared shirt and khakis, I hesitantly sat at the bar and quietly ordered the Mexi-Burger with the only voice in the whole place that didn't have a distinctly southern twang.
Ten minutes later, I was surprised to find that one of the most delicious burgers I've ever ingested was served to me at a place that only offers food because it has to. Additionally, this wholesome hunk of beef bliss, chips, and a Bud Light set me back a whopping six bucks. I got to thinking about the little things that can dictate an entire evening, and how the taste and cost of a burger can make or break a night of travel and college basketball.
This thought process continued throughout the game I was there to enjoy. The following is an abridged list of the little things that would've given Belmont the Red Line Upset victory:
1. A technical foul on Kerron Johnson midway through the second half, called for (what I assume was) jawing at an official for not giving him the bonus free throw after a made basket with contact. Marshall sank both shots.
2. Belmont's Mick Hedgepeth sinking at least one free throw in two trips where he went to the line and came up empty -- Belmont's only four misses from the stripe all night.
3. Coaching. Rick Byrd served a one-game suspension for being ejected from the Belmont's previous game vs. Miami University and was not on the sideline. At numerous points during the second half the team began to panic and take bad shots as the deficit increased. A little coaching could have calmed nerves and set up better looks. Belmont's eventual comeback came despite the coaching, not because of it.
4. Kerron Johnson's buzzer-beating layup attempt for the win needed just a little more power as it rolled harmlessly off the front of the rim.
I'll pick up the game just before that attempt. Belmont had fought to keep it close the entire game, but could never seem to break through against a Marshall team that staunchly held their five-ish point lead and matched Belmont basket for basket. Finally, the Bruins took the lead on two Adam Barnes free throws with 1:26 remaining. Marshall regained possession and gathered in an offensive rebound. After a quick timeout, Damier Pitts got to the hole to give the Herd a one-point lead with 32 seconds remaining. With the shot clock off, it seemed as if the Bruins would get one chance for an all-or-nothing shot at victory. On the ensuing possession, the Herd decided to help that chance and fouled. The crowd groaned in exasperation, but their groans quickly turned to cheers. The Herd had fouled Mick Hedgepeth, the only person to miss free throws all game for the Bruins. For the second time that night, Hedgepeth missed both free throws. Belmont, now forced to foul, sent Marshall's 86% shooter Dennis Tinnon to the line. He made both.
At this point Belmont had the ball with 11 seconds left and their army of snipers ready to pop a three for the tie. Marshall decided against tight perimeter defense on one of the most prolific long range teams in the country and fouled instead. Kerron Johnson made both free throws for the Bruins and returned possession to Marshall with seven seconds to go. The Bruins fouled on the inbound, sending the Herd's Damier Pitts to the line for two. Unbelievably, he missed both. With no timeouts remaining, the Bruins pulled in the rebound and passed to Kerron Johnson streaking up the middle of the court as time ticked away. Before the buzzer he sent up a layup that was just a little too light, rolling off the front rim and to the floor. The Henderson Center exploded and the Herd justly celebrated a hard-fought and important triumph.
Slightly better execution and a little luck would've delivered this victory to the Bruins and, giving them a road win that I can guarantee would have only looked more impressive as the year wears on. Marshall, like Belmont, is a really good team. Both are undoubtedly coming to a March near you, hopefully in the Tournament and not the NIT, CBI, or CIT. Tonight was the first game of an odd nonconference single-season home-and-home. If the rematch on December 29th at Belmont is even half as good as this one, it'll have lived up to the hype. If you have a chance, be sure to catch the Bruins this season. They really are all that.
I left Huntington for the drive back to Dayton with a smile on my face. Not only had I seen the game for which I traveled a state's length away on a weeknight, but I had experienced the finest culinary concoction in Huntington to boot. Much to my pleasure, The Cult's "She Sells Sanctuary" came on the radio somewhere between Portsmouth and Chillicothe and I smiled. See? The little things.
at MARSHALL 87, BELMONT 86 12/19/2011
BELMONT 7-5 (2-0) -- K. Johnson 4-8 10-10 18; B. Baker 5-11 0-0 14; I. Clark 5-11 1-1 12; M. Hedgepeth 4-6 2-6 10; J. Mann 3-7 3-3 11; D. Hanlen 1-3 0-0 2; S. Saunders 5-10 7-7 17; A. Barnes 0-1 2-2 2; B. Jenkins 0-1 0-0 0; R. Chamberlain 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 27-58 25-29 86. MARSHALL 8-2 (0-0) -- D. Pitts 6-12 4-6 19; D. Tinnon 8-10 8-8 24; D. Kane 12-22 3-5 29; R. Goff 3-7 1-1 7; S. Johnson 2-6 0-1 5; D. Pena 0-3 0-0 0; J. Coleman 1-4 1-2 3; N. Spikes 0-2 0-0 0; Y. Mbao 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 32-67 17-23 87.
Three-point goals: BELM 7-22 (B. Baker 4-10; D. Hanlen 0-2; I. Clark 1-4; B. Jenkins 0-1; J. Mann 2-5), MRSH 6-14 (S. Johnson 1-3; D. Pena 0-1; D. Pitts 3-4; D. Kane 2-5; J. Coleman 0-1); Rebounds: BELM 28 (S. Saunders 7), MRSH 36 (D. Tinnon 10); Assists: BELM 17 (K. Johnson 5), MRSH 20 (D. Pitts 11); Total Fouls -- BELM 20, MRSH 24; Fouled Out: BELM-None; MRSH-None.