HUNTINGTON - Marshall hopes someday to have the kind of NCAA tournament pedigree of Belmont, and the Thundering Herd took a step in that direction Monday night.
The Herd held a comfortable lead most of the second half, then had to hold on and sweat out an 87-86 victory over the Bruins. A paid crowd of 5,759 gave the Henderson Center an NCAA tournament-like electricity in the last few minutes.
After senior guard Damier Pitts missed two free throws with 5.3 seconds left, Marshall had to withstand a drive from Belmont junior guard Kerron Johnson, whose layup attempt hung on the rim before falling off as the buzzer sounded.
"I don't know how I missed the free throws, but we got back on defense and fortunately God was on our side and he missed that layup,'' smiled Pitts.
"[Belmont] had a lot of great shooters out there. They were getting us on the penetrate-and-shoot. That was hurting us. We have to do a better job of closing out on the shooters.''
Marshall took leads of 13 points on two occasions midway through the second half, but Belmont junior guard Adam Barnes made two free throws to give his team its first lead of the game at 84-83 with 1:26 left. Pitts put the Herd ahead for good at 85-84 with an off-balance jump shot in the lane with 31.5 seconds to go.
After Bruins senior swingman Mitch Hedgepeth missed two foul shots with 17.5 seconds remaining, Herd junior forward Dennis Tinnon knocked down a pair at the charity stripe for an 87-84 edge with 11.5 ticks left.
Johnson was fouled as he brought the ball to midcourt because the Herd wanted to prevent a 3-point shot attempt that could have tied the game. Johnson connected on both free throws as Belmont closed to 87-86 with seven seconds remaining. Pitts was fouled after the Herd inbounded the ball, but the 66.7-percent foul shooter missed both free throws to set up the dramatic finish.
While Marshall's defense allowed Johnson to penetrate the lane for the layup attempt, they did force the left-hander to take a right-handed shot, which trickled off the rim after rolling from back to front on the right side.
"It was great experience for our kids to get into a game like that,'' said Marshall second-year coach Tom Herrion. "You've got to find a way and we did.
"Good teams find ways to win different ways. Some nights you might win comfortably, but tonight we had a lead and didn't finish, then we did. We've got to continue to work on end-of-game situations, but you can't beat game experience.''
Belmont, which lost to Duke 77-76 in its season opener at Cameron Indoor Stadium, has played in the NCAA tournament four times in the last six seasons, losing all its first-round games. Belmont nearly pulled a shocker in the NCAAs in 2008 when, as a No. 15 seed, it narrowly lost to Duke 71-70.
"Our whole schedule is building us up to the NCAA tournament,'' said Pitts, who finished with 19 points, 11 assists and five rebounds. "Belmont is a great team and it's a good win for the program. We've just got to keep on working.''