EL PASO, Texas - Timing was everything Wednesday in the first round of the Conference USA tournament. About the time Houston finally missed shots in the second half, Marshall had started reining them in from everywhere.
The result was a 33-9 eruption by the Thundering Herd, who then endured an interminable foul-fest to capture a 97-87 victory over the Cougars at the Don Haskins Center.
The Herd (22-11) won its second C-USA tournament game ever, and the first since Ron Jirsa's 2007 team eked out a 53-52 first-round win over Alabama-Birmingham. Seeded sixth, MU advances to the quarterfinals, where it will face host Texas-El Paso, the third seed.
Damier Pitts tied his career high of 28 points and DeAndre Kane added 21. Johnny Thomas had 17 and Tirrell Baines 11 before both fouled out.
Dago Pena's nine points were as important as any, as they came on three second-half 3-pointers, all described as daggers by Houston coach James Dickey and his players. Pena recovered from falling ill on the trip west and being in the hospital for part of Tuesday.
Marshall had all sorts of trouble with the 11th-seeded Cougars (12-18), who took a 7-0 lead and owned a 36-33 edge at the half. They weren't content to just shoot 56 percent in the first half - they fired in their first seven shots of the second half, leading by as many as eight points.
Maurice McNeil and Alandise Harris scored 12 and 11 points, respectively, in the first half, and the Herd wasn't helped when Nigel Spikes picked up two fouls and later a third. The Herd shot just 37.9 percent in the first half as some shots seemed to just rim out, and it was losing the rebounding battle by a few.
"We played with very little energy to start the game," said Herd coach Tom Herrion. "Defensively, a week ago UTEP shot a high percentage and we came back, and Houston shot a high percentage (57.7 percent). It took us way too long to settle into the game."
Pitts started the Cougars' downfall with a critical 3-pointer. Kirk Van Slyke had just converted a three-point play for that 55-47 lead and the Cougars were looking to stretch it to double digits.
"He is terrific at turning the corner," Houston coach James Dickey said of Pitts. "And they do a great job with ball screens, so when he turns the corner, you've got to show early, and we were late and he just jumped up and buried a 3, and we were flat[-footed]."
Kane converted a three-point play and McNeil bailed the Herd out with four straight missed free throws. Kane then hit a fallaway jumper in the lane to tie the game at 55 - that despite Houston still not missing a field goal in the half.
Aundra Williams finally ended that streak by blocking the Cougars' next shot, from Adam Brown. The game was tied twice more, the last time at 62 when Pitts split two defenders for his patented runner.
After Williams forced Harris to miss badly on a hook shot, Pena immediately took over with a 3-pointer in transition. He fired in another after the media timeout and buried a long ball from the top of the key to give Marshall a 73-64 lead.
By then, his teammates were feeling it. Thomas canned a 3 from the right corner, and Kane fired the kill shot, beating the shot-clock buzzer from 23 feet for a 79-64 lead.
The Herd then scored its next 14 points on 20 free throws, then got two easy buckets in the final minute. All told, the Herd went 32-of-48 from the foul line.
Yes, Houston fouled at the end, but the Cougars got in trouble early in the half. As they built their short-lived lead, they hacked their way into the bonus in less than five minutes and gave the Herd a double-bonus in less than eight. McNeil picked up No. 4 with 11:05 left.
He slowed down, finishing with 16 points and 12 rebounds but seven turnovers and 4-of-10 foul shooting. Nixon led the Cougars with 21 points.
Houston (12-18, 4-12)
Player FG FT R A P
Mikhail McLean 2-3 0-0 4 0 4
Maurice McNeil 6-8 4-10 12 3 16
Alandise Harris 6-9 2-3 2 0 14
Zamal Nixon 4-8 12-12 3 4 21
Darian Thibodeaux 4-6 0-0 2 2 10