CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- IN A basketball season loaded with "ifs" and "buts," Marshall is so, so, close to owning a three-game winning streak - all on the road, even.
Alas, the Thundering Herd needed a rare road win Saturday night to avoid its third four-game losing skid of the season.
A trio of last-ditch 3-pointers has determined the difference. Southern Mississippi's Neil Watson and Tulane's Jay Hook knifed the Herd a week ago; Charlotte's Pierria' Henry came very close to hitting a game-tying, momentum-stealing 3 Saturday night.
That's a heck of a swing, when you look at it historically. MU hasn't won three straight conference road games since January 1997, and it hasn't suffered three four-game skids since 2004-05.
A 20-win season in the former, a dismal winter in the latter. Sometimes the line is that thin.
The 49ers can relate. Their 59-56 loss to Marshall represented the 11th time they have played in a game decided by five or fewer points, or in overtime. You might as well pencil in the March 6 return bout in Huntington as another one.
Saturday night, I saw a little bit of Marshall in the 49ers - a team not without talent, but one that can't seem to stand prosperity. In the first 12 minutes, I thought I was seeing the best mid-major team this side of Wichita State, with Henry looking like a league MVP.
I thought to myself, "How are these guys only 5-5 in the league?"
The question was answered in 28 minutes of Herd-aided sloppiness, and suddenly Charlotte is suffering a three-game losing streak.
"The game was more mental than it was physical," said 49ers coach Alan Major. "We clearly know we're a better basketball team than the way we played. We missed a couple of easy buckets we usually make, a couple of mishaps here and there and it snowballed to some degree."
Marshall followers have gotten used to sloppiness, but they're also getting used to dazzling play by Chris Thomas and Kareem Canty. They accounted for 39 of the Herd's 59 points Saturday - 66.1 percent.
It was the second game in a row they've scored more than half their team's points and, frankly, this MU team might as well follow that formula.
That's not to give up on Ryan Taylor, who had seven points and nine rebounds Saturday. He still has a double-double or two left - if he can stay out of foul trouble. He didn't foul out for the ninth time, but his second foul did cost him the last 8:46 of the first half.
That meant he got to watch Thomas almost singlehandedly rescue the Herd, beginning with a personal 8-0 run that triggered the rally from an 11-point deficit. It was as dominant and slick, yet controlled, a performance as I've seen by the sophomore from Denver.
Thomas had 49er fans beside themselves, wondering why defenders didn't just get in the way and take a charge. Or, in the case one front-row fan screaming in my ear, why the officials didn't call traveling.
Sometimes when Thomas thunders into the lane, screaming might be the most effective defense. You plant yourself to take the charge and he's around you - remember, you can't take a charge in that circle under the rim.
And when he gets around you, you can't magically move and reset yourself. You will be whistled for a foul and Thomas will get a chance at a three-point play - he did that twice in a row during his first-half run.
"When he picks the right spots, he's so creative," said MU coach Tom Herrion. "Slithery, kind of finds space where [other] guys can't, plays around guys on drives. When we pitch it ahead to him in transition, he's so hard to keep in front, so we did a good job in that regard."