HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - When Elijah Pittman exited the building in disgrace Tuesday night, Chris Thomas entered the realm of spectacular game-changers on the Marshall basketball team.
Thomas, unstoppable when driving the lane and a bully on the defensive end, took the lead in the Thundering Herd's 74-64 burial of Western Kentucky. An announced crowd of 5,113 witnessed the 6-foot-5 sophomore's breakout game.
He more than took up the slack after Pittman's early ejection, tossing in 27 points and recording six steals in 35 minutes - all highs for his five-game career. At times, he banged bodies with thicker Hilltoppers and drew a charging foul or two.
"I think he's only getting better and better, when he figures everything out," said Herd coach Tom Herrion. "He's hard to guard. He's got great, explosive quickness. It doesn't take much for him to find a seam or a crack, and when he does, he's kind of slithery and he slices and dices.
"One of his best qualities is he's a great finisher. He can create shots, he can finish shots around people, over people, he uses the backboard really well. It's a lost art, to be honest with you. Making layups in traffic, he can really do that."
Perhaps his best basket came with the Herd (4-2) up 49-46 inside of 11 minutes remaining. After Ryan Taylor stole the ball from WKU's Brandon Harris, the ball wound up in Thomas' hands, and Thomas steamed through the lane for a scooping, looping, spinning layup off the glass.
Herrion was seen grinning on the bench. He should have been: His team not only avoided a long, ugly night, but it was taking control. After that basket, the Hilltoppers (3-2) never had the ball with a chance to tie it.
In the opening minutes, the Hilltoppers scored on six of their first seven possessions, leading 13-7. T.J. Price then fed George Fant, but Fant missed a dunk attempt. The whistle blew, as there was contact away from the ball.
That's an understatement. A Pittman elbow landed just under the jaw of WKU's Caden Dickerson, putting Dickerson in pain and bringing the officials to look at the courtside monitor. After a lengthy conference, they called a "flagrant-2" foul on Pittman, which brings an ejection.
"I thought he should have been ejected. There's no place in college basketball for that," said WKU coach Ray Harper. "He's lucky that kid didn't get really hurt."
So five minutes into the game, the Herd lost its leading scorer, as Pittman was averaging 29.4 points per game. Ten minutes into the game, the Herd was down 24-8 and nothing was going right.
But just as quickly, everything went right and the Herd went on a 12-1 run. Kareem Canty, who scored 15 points, fired in a long 3-pointer, Thomas drove for his first field goal and then fired a from-the-hip 3-pointer. A Canty runner clipped the WKU lead to 27-22.
The Hilltoppers scored nine straight to establish a 36-22 lead, but Marshall scored the final eight of the half and the first five of the second half. The Herd took its first second-half lead at 40-39 on a Canty pull-up jumper, and a Thomas drive put the Herd up for good 44-43 with 13:08 left.
The Herd defense carried the load the rest of the way. It forced 23 turnovers, 14 on steals, and limited the Hilltoppers to 22.2 percent shooting after halftime.
And WKU lost four players to fouls. The first two were the big ones - Price and Fant, the team's two top scorers, were buzzered out within 11 seconds of each other.
With Thomas leading the way, the Herd shot 30 of 39 from the line, its best performance of the season. Harper noticed.
"They made 12 more than we attempted," Harper said. "There's the game - free throws and our turnovers."
Pittman probably will miss the Herd's next game, 4 p.m. Saturday at East Tennessee State. When Robert Goff was ejected last season against West Virginia, Conference USA assessed an automatic one-game suspension.
"The Pittman situation, I don't have any grip on it right now," Herrion said. "I haven't seen it, I'll look at it, I'll deal with it. So I have no comment on that situation until I get an idea what's going on."
Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, dougsm...@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.
Marshall 74, Western Kentucky 64
Western Kentucky (3-2)
M FG FT R A P
Fant 24 4-10 1-2 3 0 9
Rostov 22 0-5 2-2 3 1 2
Hulsey 33 4-10 8-9 8 7 16
Dickerson 37 1-3 2-3 2 1 4
T. Price 13 4-8 0-0 2 1 11