It was deemed as a heavyweight bout for the top spot in Conference USA Saturday afternoon between Marshall (11-11, 7-2) and UAB (18-4, 8-1) at the Cam Henderson Center and the 7,085 fans in attendance were rewarded with an epic showdown.
UAB watched a 10-point second half lead evaporate to only one in the closing seconds, but managed to escape with an 81-78 win over Marshall to once again grab the top spot in CUSA.
James Kelly grabbed his CUSA leading 11th double-double of the season, netting 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Herd. Five players finished in double-figures for the Blazers with Dirk Williams leading the way with 16 points and four rebounds off the bench. Robert Brown had 15 points and five boards with Nick Norton adding 14. UAB's bench outscored Marshall 45-8.
Both team struggled out of the gate, with the game seeing five ties in the opening nine minutes. Lewis Sullivan broke the tie for good with 10:40 left in the half, giving UAB a 14-12 lead. Kelly responded with his first basket of the contest, connecting from long-range for a 15-14 Herd edge.
Norton provided the Blazers with a spark off the bench with his first bucket of the afternoon at the 10:10 mark, and 16-15 UAB lead. Kelly added his second of a career-high four 3-pointers to give Marshall an 18-17 lead only to have UAB's Tosin Mehinti's layup put the Blazers in front for good.
UAB rolled off an 8-0 run for a 25-18 lead, while holding Marshall scoreless for nearly three minutes. Trailing 28-20 with 5:40 left in the half, Marshall responded with a 7-0 run of its own, four coming from Taylor, to trim the deficit to only one with 3:51 left in the half.
Taylor finished with 19 points and three rebounds.
Three triples by UAB, one by William Lee and two from Williams, sparked a 9-0 Blazers run with a Lee layup providing the largest lead of the game, 38-28, with 1:04 before the break. Marshall trimmed the deficit to six on a dunk by Terrance Thompson and a Kelly jumper, but Norton streaked the length of the court in the final eight seconds, hitting a buzzer-beater layup for a 40-32 Blazers lead.
UAB punished Marshall down low, scoring 22 of its 40 first-half points inside the paint while shooting 46.9 percent from the field.
"Inside, we gave up a lot of where they were back picking," Marshall head coach Dan D'Antoni said. "We weren't getting ready earlier enough. We have to work on all of our bigs, but mostly we have to work on one to get over there, defenses play early rather than late, and if you're late and it hits you, then with a team that executes, it's going to be too late."
A Kelly triple to open the second half trimmed the Herd deficit to only five, but a Norton layup and 3-pointer quickly ballooned the Blazers lead back to 10.
Marshall pulled to within one, 53-52, after back-to-back buckets by Jon Elmore and Kelly brought the rowdy crowd to life with 11:37 left in the affair. The Blazers were relentless to the Herd contingency, erupting for a 14-5 run capped by a Norton triple to push the lead back to 10 with 8:02 remaining.
Marshall pulled to within five at 79-74 with 2:34 to go on a Kelly layup while searching for one final surge for a comeback. Taylor answered the call by burying a 3-pointer from the wing with 45 seconds left making it 79-78.
Robert Brown had a chance to put the game on ice with 15 seconds to go, but his layup missed the mark, giving Marshall one final shot at the win.
Trailing 79-78 with less than eight seconds left in the contest, Taylor drove to the basket with a chance for the game-winning shot. As Taylor released the shot through heavy contact, the ball flew out of bounds and appeared Marshall would have one final shot to steal a win. However, during the timeout, the officials deemed replay showed Taylor last touched the ball and reversed the call, awarding the Blazers the ball with 1.8 seconds remaining.
Stevie Browning drew heavy contact from Norris on the Blazers' ensuing inbound, but no foul was called and UAB held on for the win.
"You can't go back and look at whether it was a foul or not," D'Antoni said. "They [officials] were just looking to see if the ball went off his hands, and I'm sure it probably did, question is whether the foul occurred and where the calls at. That I don't know, they are doing the best they can. I thought Stevie went down, I thought that was a little bit clearer, sometimes that happens."
Marshall returns to the road in a two-game swing in Texas with stops at UTEP and UTSA Thursday and Saturday respectively.