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Conference USA championship: Marshall is dancing for the first time since 1987

Marshall comes away with the close win over rival WKU in the C-USA final.

NCAA Basketball: Conference USA Tournament Final-Marshall vs Western Kentucky Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

“The Moonshine Throwdown” rivalry reached a new level Saturday as the Marshall Thundering Herd defeated the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, 67-66 in the Conference USA championship game.

Marshall Athletics announced that the Thundering Herd accepted an invite to play in the Tournament (CIT), should they come up short in the title game. However, the Herd faithful were hoping for much more in a chance to win their first conference title since 1987. For WKU, it would be their first title since 2013 when the Hilltoppers were in the Sun Belt.

Marshall started the game in typical Dan D’Antoni fashion, with four their first five baskets coming from three-point land. The two teams remained locked in a tight game for the first half with neither team gaining more than a four-point lead. The Hilltoppers ended the first half ice cold, scoring only two points in the final 5:45. Despite the WKU offensive struggles, Marshall only led 34-31 at the half.

In the second half, the Thundering Herd relied on junior Jon Elmore to lead them, and Elmore did just that. With a 45-37 lead, Elmore scored 11-straight points for the Thundering Herd, giving them their first double-digit lead of the game. The Hilltoppers battled back with the help of Josh Anderson, Justin Johnson, and Lamonte Bearden. Johnson brought the Hilltoppers back to within single digits by scoring 12 points and grabbing eight rebounds in the second half.

Facing a 12-point deficit with 3:40 remaining, WKU decided to make a change to its defense, going to a half-court trap style to take the Thundering Herd out of their run-and-gun offense.

Marshall did not score again for the rest of the game.

Johnson nailed a triple for WKU with 1:06 remaining to cut the Marshall lead to one, 67-66.

With less than a minute remaining, WKU had two chances to take the lead, but the Hilltoppers couldn’t hit their shots. Marshall got the ball back late after a deflection out of bounds that was in favor of the Thundering Herd. Marshall inbounded the ball on the WKU baseline and was able to run the clock out by avoiding fouls and throwing keep-away passes. The Thundering Herd players stormed the court and Marshall is headed to the NCAA tournament for the first time in over 30 years.

Elmore finished the game with 27 points, hitting seven three-pointers. Ajdin Penava finished with 16 points and nine rebounds. WKU finished with four players in double figures, led by Johnson, who ended with 21 points and 12 rebounds.

WKU is currently 24-10 and hoping for an NIT opportunity. Tomorrow will be an interesting day for Conference USA, as MTSU hopes for an NCAA at-large bid, and WKU hopes that larger major schools won’t steal an NIT bid. As for the Thundering Herd, they can respectfully decline that CIT invite.