On a night NCAA coaches wore a blue puzzle piece lapel pin on their jackets to symbolize support for Autism Awareness, Marshall basketball showed it might have found the missing piece to its puzzle in hopes of a shot at a Conference USA Championship.
A crowd of 8,520 Saturday night inside the Cam Henderson Center saw Marshall (15-12, 11-3) hold league-leading scorer Trey Freeman to 20 hard earned points in an 82-65 win over Old Dominion (15-2, 8-6) in dominating fashion. It was only the second road loss in conference for the Monarchs.
Ryan Taylor earned the 26th double-double of his career, netting a game-high 23 points and grabbing 12 rebound only one game after finishing without a made field goal for the first time in junior's three season with the Herd.
Entering the contest, ODU had only allowed an average of 61.9 points a night, good for 10th best in the nation, but after shooting 20 percent in the first 12 minutes of the game, Marshall finished with a 50 percent (25-50) clip from the field to earn the season sweep.
"We scored 82 points, a lot of points against a team like that, but it was a grind 82," Marshall head coach Dan D'Antoni said. "Sometimes you have those easy, free-flowing 82s, but every shot we got was difficult. To get 82 points against this team speaks highly of our team."
Marshall's Austin Loop gave the Herd an early 3-0 lead just 12 seconds into the game, but over eight minutes expired before the Herd would sink its next, a Taylor triple to tie the affair at 9-9 with 11:20 left in the half.
Playing in front of the largest crowd at home in nearly five years, Marshall worked to settle its nerves in the opening half while battling one of the best shooters in the nation in Freeman. Just as the Monarchs' sharpshooter began to heat up, Marshall's Taylor provided an answer, back-to-back triples for a 22-20 Herd lead with 4:36 before the break.
Not only did Taylor's trey give Marshall the edge, it also broke the single season school record of 3-pointers attempted in a season. With the Herd sitting at 800 and counting with four games remaining in the regulation season, the old mark of 788 is nothing less than a distant memory.
Aaron Bacote tied the game for the eighth time in the half at 24-24 with 3:31 to go, but Marshall would close on a 10-2 run led by Taylor and Herd sixth-man C.J. Burks for a 34-26 lead at the break.
Freeman had 12 for the Monarchs at the break but the adjustments the Herd made for the second half resulted in a frustrating night on the floor for the senior transfer from Campbell.
"We just played good defense," Taylor said. "We knew [Trey] Freeman was a heck of a player coming in. Stevie [Browning] and Jon [Elmore], they did a great job tonight on him. We just had to keep the bigs off the boards."
Out of the break, ODU made another run sparked by Freeman and ODU big man Zoran Tally, to cut the deficit to four with 17:14 left. Unfortunately for the Monarchs, they would draw no closer. Loop and Jon Elmore drained back-to-back triples to run the lead back to 10, followed by an Elmore to James Kelly alley-oop that rejuvenated the near capacity crowd.
"This win was huge for us," Elmore said. "In the back of our head we know what other teams are doing but really we're focused on us. I think everyone in here believes we're going to control our own destiny on where we finish so we're just going to keep concentrating on what we have to do and keep trying to win games."
Elmore finished with nine points while tying his career high of 10 assists, the second time in the last three games the VMI transfer has dished out double-digit dimes. Kelly added 18 points and seven rebounds.
Stevie Browning gave Marshall a 12-point lead after his triple made it 58-46, but the Monarchs had one final surge left in the tank. Struggling to get the open looks he saw in the first half due to Marshall's second half defensive adjustments, Freeman pulled ODU to within seven with 9:17 remaining.
With the fans clinging to hope of Marshall not letting this one slip away, Elmore streaked to the basket for the hoop and the harm, giving Marshall a 10-point cushion while electrifying the crowd.
Marshall attacked Freeman with a trio of Browning, Burks and Loop, but the stifling pressure limited him to his second lowest scoring outing in 2016 (13 vs. North Texas).
"We had faith in each other that we could all do our part to make sure that he doesn't go for 37 again," Browning said. "I mean the whole offense goes around him and we really keyed in especially with our bigs helping on the screens and stuff and it kind of took him out of that and it forced other people to try to make plays."
Browning fell just two points shy of high career high, netting 18 while grabbing seven boards for the Herd. Brandon Stith finished with 18 points and seven rebounds and Talley had 12 for the Monarchs.
By the time Marshall heads to bed Sunday night, it will either be in a tie for the conference lead or stand-alone in second place with matchups with UAB and Middle Tennessee State upcoming Thursday and Saturday respectively.