MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — In a college basketball game of wild runs, Marshall had one more than did Middle Tennessee.
The Thundering Herd (8-8 overall, 2-1 Conference USA) built a 13-point lead and held off the Blue Raiders (4-12, 0-3) in a 79-75 victory Thursday night at the Murphy Center.
Iran Bennett, a 6-foot-9, 299-pound sophomore center, scored 17 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in 29 minutes for his second career double-double to lead Marshall. Bennett averaged 20 minutes per game coming in, but the Herd needed the big man more on Thursday.
“He’s a load inside,” Marshall coach Danny D’Antoni said. “We’re just scratching the surface with him. He’s going to get better and better. For a man his size, he’s agile. He was a big, big part of why we won tonight.”
Marshall came out strong, racing to a 13-4 lead as Bennett scored six points in the first 3:59. The Herd still led by nine after a Bennett basket at 14:02 made it 20-11, but Middle Tennessee rallied, taking advantage of nine Herd turnovers caused in great part by the Blue Raiders’ trapping defense.
“We weren’t really expecting them to come at us,” D’Antoni said of MTSU changing its defense from what it had done much of the season. “That’s our fault. When we solved that, we got some easy baskets.”
Solve it Marshall did, turning the ball over just five times in the second half.
C.J. Jones hit a 3-pointer to start the Raiders’ comeback. Jones scored 12 points during a streak that ended with him making two of three free throws to give Middle Tennessee a 28-27 lead.
With Jarrod West, who scored 13 of his 16 points in the second half, on the bench with two fouls and Bennett sidelined for a breather, Taevion Kinsey, Andy Taylor and Marko Sarenac took over for the Herd. Kinsey scored five points, Taylor three and Sarenac four during a 12-5 run that gave Marshall a 39-32 lead at halftime.
Jones kept Middle Tennessee in the game, scoring 14 points in the first half, nearly matching his season average of 16.3. He finished with 21.
The Herd appeared as if they might run away with the contest as Bennett scored five points and Darius George, who scored 11 points, slammed a dunk during a 7-1 burst to begin the second half to boost the lead to 46-33. The Blue Raiders, though, rallied again. Marshall put together five consecutive empty possessions and MTSU used a 9-0 run to pull within 46-42 before Marshall called timeout with 15:03 left.
Middle Tennessee pulled within 49-46 after Jayce Johnson banked in a shot, but the Herd answered. Jeremy Dillon grabbed an offensive rebound and kicked the ball out to Jannson Williams, who hit a 3-pointer. After a Blue Raider miss, George took a pass from Kinsey and made a 3-point play with a dunk and free throw to stretch the lead 55-46.
The Blue Raiders refused to fold. Reggie Scurry, who finished with a game-high 13 rebounds, made a free throw and Antonio Green made a 3-pointer to make it 55-50. Marshall, however, scored five quick points as Williams and Bennett sandwiched dunks around a Kinsey free throw to make it 60-50 and prompt Middle Tennessee to call time out with 7:25 left.
The Blue Raiders inserted Jo’Vantae Millner and the 6-foot-6 junior forward from Burlington, North Carolina, kept his team in the game. Millner made two 3-pointers and a free throw to pull Middle Tennessee within six points. His effort, though, nearly was negated by Bennett assisting West on two 3-pointers that put the Herd up 68-59 with 4:25 to play.
Bennett’s basket with 3:37 left made it 70-61, but again the Blue Raiders stormed back. Sims, who scored 18 points, hit a desperation 3-pointer from 32 feet as the shot clock expired, then Jones stole a pass and drove for a basket to cut the deficit to 70-66.
Kinsey, who finished with 13 points, scored a key bucket to make it 72-66. Sims followed by banking in a 3-pointer, but it didn’t count because coach Nick McDevitt called time out just before the junior guard released the ball. After the timeout, the Blue Raiders missed and Bennett grabbed his 10th rebound before feeding West, who swished a 3-pointer to extend the lead to 75-66.
Sims responded with a basket from beyond the arc to pull his team within 75-69 with 29 seconds left. Sims then fouled West, who made both free throws to make it 77-69.
Sims, though, made another 3 and, after Andrew Taylor missed a free throw, Green hit a 3-pointer to make it 77-75.
Williams scored off a pass from Kinsey with 2 seconds remaining to set the score.
Bennett said last week’s 67-64 loss in which Marshall blew a nine-point lead motivated the Herd on Thursday.
“It was real fun getting this win, especially after last game,” said Bennett, who added he felt Marshall let the North Texas game get away. “Coming in here, we really wanted to win. We were coming in mad from that. Everybody played well, played hard, good defense and everything.”
Marshall returns to action at 3 p.m. Saturday with another conference game at UAB. Middle Tennessee entertains Western Kentucky at 6 p.m. Saturday.
“We go down to UAB, we have to bring our A-game,” D’Antoni said. “They’re a good ball club.”
MARSHALL 39 40 — 79: Kinsey 13, Bennett 17, Taylor 9, West 16, George 11, Dillon 0, J. Williams 9, Sarenac 4, Sturm 0, Brooks-Harris 0, Miladinovic 0
MIDDLE TENNESSEE 32-43 — 75: Jones 21, Scurry 9, Sims 15, Johnson 9, Jackson 5, Green 8, Lawrence 2, Millner 6, Camp 0.