EL PASO, Texas - Marshall used a 20-2 run midway through the second half to break open a close game on the way to a 97-87 win against the University of Houston men's basketball team on Wednesday during the first round of the 2011 Buick Conference USA Championship inside the Don Haskins Center.
In a game that went back and forth early with neither team gaining more than a 7-point lead, senior guard Zamal Nixon gave the Cougars a 62-60 lead after hitting a pair of free throws with 8:33 left in the game. However, Marshall erupted on its biggest run to seize control of the game.
After Damier Pitts knotted the game at 62-62 on a jumper, Dago Pena hit back-to-back 3-pointers to give the Thundering Herd a surge of momentum. The rally continued until Pitts hit the first of two free throws with 3:24 remaining for an 80-64 Marshall advantage.
The Herd connected on six 3-pointers in the entire second half with five of those treys coming during that run.
Despite hitting 57.7 percent from the field, including 59.3 percent (16-of-27) in the second half alone, the Cougars turned the ball over 17 times, leading to 20 Marshall points. The Herd also took advantage of 15 offensive rebounds to tally 17 second-chance points.
With the loss, the Cougars finished the season at 12-18 overall. Marshall improved to 22-10 overall and will face No. 3 seed and host UTEP in the C-USA Championship quarterfinals on Thursday.
Playing in their final games as Cougars, senior guard Zamal Nixon led the team with 21 points, including a 12-of-12 performance from the free throw line, while senior forward Maurice McNeil posted 16 points and 12 rebounds for his team-leading ninth double-double of the season.
Pitts led all players with 28 points with a game-high 10 assists and was 14-of-18 from the free throw line. DeAndre Kane, the 2011 C-USA Freshman of the Year, posted 21 points and a team-high 10 rebounds, while Johnny Thomas added 17 points. Tirrell Baines recorded 11 points in the win.
The Cougars raced out to a 7-0 lead in the game's first three minutes, but Marshall chipped away and used an 11-2 run early to take a 15-12 lead. The game went back and forth from there with neither team scoring more than four unanswered points for the rest of the half.
The opening 20 minutes featured six ties and four lead changes.
* The Cougars saw their four-game winning streak at the Conference USA Championship end... It tied as the third-longest conference postseason tournament winning streak in school history and was the longest since 1992-93.
* Wednesday's game marked the first time that the Cougars played Marshall in a conference postseason tournament.
* With the loss, the Cougars will not play UTEP in the C-USA Championship for the first time since the 2006-07 season... Ironically, Houston would have faced the Miners in the quarterfinals with a win against the Thundering Herd.
* With six 3-pointers, the Cougars played their 304th consecutive game with at least one trey.
* Freshman forward Mikhail McLean tied his career best with four rebounds... Equaled his total against UAB on Feb. 26.
* Junior guard Darian Thibodeaux was the only player to start all 30 games in 2010-11... Thibodeaux, senior guard Zamal Nixon and sophomore guard Nick Haywood were the only players to compete in all 30 games this season.
* In addition to Nixon and senior forward Maurice McNeil, senior guards Adam Brown and Cory Tellis also competed in their final collegiate games.