HUNTINGTON - A more thorough check of the records may be in order, but Saturday night appears to be the first time as a head coach Donnie Jones found himself on the wrong side of a 24-point deficit at Cam Henderson Center.
Not even the Memphis Tigers of Derrick Rose and coach John Calipari did it. They beat Jones' first Marshall team 68-45 in January 2008, but the final score was the largest lead.
When Jones made his first visit in the villainous role of Central Florida coach, the Knights found themselves behind a 61-37 woodshed in the second half. Not even four straight 3-pointers gave them a prayer in an 83-69 Marshall victory.
It was a satisfying result for the sellout crowd of 9,036, who divided time between booing Jones and his irascible point guard, A.J. Rompza. The latter was involved in an incident that led to the ejection of the Herd's Dago Pena.
That was a minor blemish on the Herd's festivities, which included the senior-day honoring of Tirrell Baines and Orlando Allen. Damier Pitts scored 25 points and dished out eight assists as the Herd shot 51.9 percent and mashed the Knights 42-25 on the boards.
The result avenged UCF's 65-58 win Jan. 5 in Orlando, and put the Herd in a tie for fifth in the Conference USA standings. Marshall will take the No. 6 seed into the Conference USA tournament, where it plays No. 11 Houston at 7:30 p.m. EST Wednesday.
"I knew we were going to win. There was no doubt in my mind," said Johnny Thomas, who scored 14 points. "We've been playing very well, we've got point guards like Damier and a force like Baines. So just coming into a game, it was just a matter of how much we were going to win by."
Pitts started his onslaught with an early 3-pointer and a three-point play to give Marshall (21-10, 9-7) a 15-7 lead. He left the game with a minor foot injury but didn't lose a beat when he re-entered.
Scoring 13 in the first half, Pitts led the Herd to a 43-27 halftime lead. He made sure the second half started on the right note, hitting Thomas for an alley-oop dunk on the first possession.
DeAndre Kane scored four of his 12 points on the next trip, getting fouled by P.J. Gaynor while sinking a 3-pointer. Then Pitts and Kane turned up the fast break, where Marshall scored 18 of its points. When Pitts score on a couple of midrange jumpers and Baines dunked off a Kane pass, the Herd had its 61-37 lead.
"You don't win by that margin in this league at this time of the year, folks," said coach Tom Herrion, who sported a green blazer for the first time. "That's a testament to our kids, how prepared they were for this game."
The Knights (19-10, 6-10) fought back with four 3-pointers in a row, harkening back to the ridiculous shots they hit in the Herd's 121-115 triple-overtime win last season in Huntington. When Marshall tried to answer inside, the game took a different turn.
After a few misses, Pena secured the ball and, as the explanation goes, led with his elbow into the 5-foot-7 Rompza. After officials reviewed the monitor, they ruled Pena committed a flagrant foul and ejected him.
Herrion said he couldn't speculate whether Pena would be automatically suspended for the Herd's game against Houston on Wednesday, such as Shaquille Johnson was earlier in the season. The thought is that while Johnson was called for throwing a punch at James Madison, while officials ruled Pena did not throw a punch Saturday and will not be suspended.
But that is uncertain. "I'll find out tonight. I'm not answering that question, because I don't have enough knowledge," Herrion said.
It was a chippy affair before and after the incident, with seven technical fouls dished out. Rompza was one of the recipients, much to the delight of the home folks.
After Pena's ejection, Marcus Jordan hit two free throws for two of his 27 points to cut the lead to 63-51. But Keith Clanton missed two free throws on the next trip and Marshall reeled off the next four baskets, two set up by Pitts.
"I thought we handled it, and two months ago we probably wouldn't have," Herrion said. "You go through experiences to gain experience, and we did that tonight."
UCF, once 14-0 and ranked 18th in the country in one poll, was locked into ninth place in the league. The Knights will open the tournament Wednesday against eighth seed East Carolina.
The Herd won the six of its last seven, and did so before its largest crowd since, oh, Jones lost by 23 to Rose, Calipari and Memphis. Herrion, once begging for more fans to come, paid his highest compliments.
"I've been doing this long enough," Herrion said. "You tell me where you want to go in the country - I've been in [Duke's] Cameron Hall, I've been in Dean [Smith Center, North Carolina], UConn and all the Big East stuff and Wisconsin. For two hours tonight, that was one of the best environments in the nation."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or dougsm...@wvgazette.com.
Marshall 83, UCF 69
Central Florida (19-10, 6-10)
Player FG FT R A P
Dwight McCombs 0-0 0-0 1 0 0
P.J. Gaynor 2-3 0-0 3 0 4
Keith Clanton 7-13 2-6 6 1 17
Marcus Jordan 7-16 10-13 3 1 27
Isaac Sosa 2-6 0-0 1 0 5
A.J. Rompza 2-3 0-0 0 0 6
Taylor Young 0-0 0-0 0 1 0
Dave Diakite 0-2 1-2 0 0 1
Amara Thompson 0-0 0-0 1 0 0
A.J. Tyler 3-6 0-0 3 1 7
Isaiah Sykes 0-2 0-1 1 0 0
Tom Herzog 1-3 0-0 2 0 2
Totals 24-54 13-22 25 4 69
Marshall (21-10, 9-7)
Player FG FT R A P
Johnny Thomas 7-11 0-0 5 1 14
Tirrell Baines 5-12 1-2 4 2 11
Nigel Spikes 3-3 3-4 5 0 9
Damier Pitts 7-11 10-11 4 8 25
DeAndre Kane 3-9 4-5 7 3 12