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Marshall Torches Western Kentucky 94-76 to Open CUSA Play

Marshall dropped WKU for the third straight season in Huntington, while putting on a dunk contest in the first half.

James Kelly (24) sails past Ben Lawson (14) in the Herd's 94-76 win over the Hilltoppers.
James Kelly (24) sails past Ben Lawson (14) in the Herd's 94-76 win over the Hilltoppers.
Falecia Collier/Collier Photography

Marshall dished out 19 assists, forced 11 turnovers leading to 19 Herd points while swiping nine steals in its Conference USA opener with Western Kentucky Sunday afternoon at the Cam Henderson Center—all in the first half.

James Kelly's sixth double-double of the season paced five Herd players who finished in double-figures while delivering a 94-76 beat down of WKU. It was the Herd's first win to open conference play since a 79-61 defeat of Tulsa in 2013. WKU took its first conference opener loss since falling 81-73 to Arkansas State in 2011.

Marshall (5-9, 1-0) kicked off the new year with a bang, treating the fans in attendance to new black uniforms and the 2016 version of Dunk City, slamming home five dunks in the first half including four alley-oops.

"James Kelly rolling down the middle, you better honor that and if you don't, there are four lobs early," Marshall head coach Dan D'Antoni said. "And once you start doing that, then the defense starts going down and then you shoot threes. And then they adjust to threes, and you go back in so pick your poison."

Marshall sank seven threes in the first half and dished out assists on all but two of its 21 first-half baskets while shooting 60 percent from the field.

WKU (8-6, 0-1) took an early 6-2 lead on a Justin Johnson jumper, but a 7-2 Marshall run capped off by a Jon Elmore to Stevie Browning alley-oop gave the Herd its first lead of the game with 16:25 left in the half. Two minutes later, Browning's jumper gave Marshall an 11-10 lead, one that it wouldn't surrender the remainder of the contest.

Over the next 2:30, Kelly and Austin Loop turned Huntington into Dunk City after a 13-2 run gave Marshall a 24-12 lead. With the Toppers' defense trying to slow the Herd's aerial attack, the perimeter was left wide open, and Ryan Taylor and Loop took full advantage. Back-to-back triples by Taylor followed by Loop's second of the game made it 33-18 with 9:33 left in the half.

Johnson cut the Toppers' deficit to nine with 3:36 to go. Two Kelly buckets mixed with a C.J. Burks 3-pointer sparked a 7-0 Herd run, and a 49-33 lead at the break, while the men in black held its opponent scoreless the remainder of the half.

Johnson led the Hilltoppers with 24 points and shot 84.6 percent (11-of-13) from the field.

"No question, our offense is set up with spreading the floor, ball movement and pace," D'Antoni said. "And once that starts happening, the ball movement, then what we preach is take a shot that you make whenever, wherever, and I thought we did a nice job."

Although Elmore went scoreless in the first half, he dished out seven dimes—one shy of his career high—before adding to the Herd's scoring barrage, pushing Marshall's lead to 19 with 18:22 to go.

As Elmore's production continued, so did the Herd's margin in the contest, inflating to as many as 26 with 13:39 left in the game after converting another And-1. The sophomore transfer from VMI finished with 13 points, eight assists and four steals in 33 minutes while committing only three turnovers.

WKU got to within 20 three times the rest of the half only to have the Marshall sharp shooters deliver another blow to the effort. The 18-point deficit as the final buzzer sounded would be as close as the Hilltoppers would come the rest of the way.

"We got beat to loose balls, didn't communicate in transition, leave a guy open," WKU head coach Ray Harper said. "And then when you turn it over 20 times, it just compounds the problems."

The Hilltoppers shot 55 percent (33-of-60) from the field but shot only 10.5 percent (2-of-19) from long-range while committing a season-high 20 turnovers—15 coming off Marshall steals—leading to 39 Herd points.  WKU continued its streak of consecutive games (886) with a made 3-point basket after a Ben Lawson lob pass landed in the bucket. It was Lawson's first career triple and only his third attempt.

Marshall's 94 points are the second most given up by WKU this season, second only to then No. 12 Xavier's 95 Dec. 5 and the first time a Harper Hilltoppers' team has allowed 90+ in a conference matchup. WKU remains winless in Huntington under Harper, falling in each of the past three seasons.

"I've never had a team where this is the issue—94 points," Harper said. "You're not going to win giving up 94 points. That's just not happening."

Browning added 14 points and three steals for the Herd, Taylor had 12 points and a season-high seven assists, Loop had 11.

"It's one game; you can't get too excited," D'Antoni said. "But we played well, and defensively we got after it. Hopefully we can build on this. But when you move the ball and you make shots, it all works together."

Marshall remains at home for its next two contests, welcoming FAU Thursday evening and FIU Saturday. Both games are scheduled for a 7 p.m. tipoff.