HUNTINGTON - Marshall University's four men's basketball senior players went out as champions.
Jon Elmore spoke for the group when he said winning the CollegeInsider.com Tournament title was a storybook ending for himself, C.J. Burks, Rondale Watson and Christian Thieneman. Thundering Herd head coach Dan D'Antoni referred to the seniors as three West Virginians (Elmore, Burks, Watson) and a kissing-cousin Kentuckian (Thieneman).
Marshall (23-14) finished the season strong by winning 10 of its final 11 games and capping it Thursday night with a 90-70 defeat of the Green Bay Phoenix in the CIT finals with an announced crowd of 5,748 spectators in Cam Henderson Center.
The CIT title is just the second postseason championship in program history and the first since winning the small-college NAIB tournament in 1947.
"It means a lot," said Elmore, a point guard from Charleston who set the Marshall and Conference USA career records with 2,638 points and 783 assists. "The work we put in. The way the program shifted from where it was to where it is now. You saw how many people were out there watching and supporting us. We've been very fortunate to have a coach who believed in us from day one.
"I think me, C.J., Rondale and Christian were very highly under-recruited, and coach D'Antoni gave us the keys and let us go to work."
D'Antoni said he was happy for the win, but he was happier for every day of practice and every day he got to travel with the players and just be around them.
CIT Most Valuable Player honors went to Burks, a guard from Martinsburg, West Virginia. Elmore and Marshall freshman Taevion Kinsey, from Columbus, made the all-tournament team.
Burks netted 28 points, snagged seven rebounds, dished six assists and made three steals. Elmore scored 17, grabbed six rebounds and delivered three assists. Kinsey posted the first double-double performance of his rookie season with 21 points and 11 rebounds. Watson, a guard from Lewisburg, West Virginia, concluded his career with eight points and eight rebounds.
Thieneman is a forward from Louisville, Kentucky, who made a cameo appearance at the end of the game.
The seniors were a part of Marshall history in 2018 as the C-USA champion that recorded the program's first NCAA Tournament victory.
D'Antoni said restoring passion to the program was why he returned to coach at his alma mater.
"We got to see the last four years a real high level of basketball," said D'Antoni, a former NBA assistant coach. "I sat at NBA games for 10 years. We run a highlight tape of our team before every game and it was easier to get highlights of our games."
Green Bay (21-17), from the Horizon League, didn't go down easily. Marshall was missing shots early and the Phoenix grabbed a 37-24 lead on Sandy Cohen III's 3-point field goal at 6:11 of the opening half. Burks scored Marshall's final seven points of the half and the Green Bay lead was clipped to 42-40.
Cohen, the Phoenix leader at 17.5 points per game, had 13 at halftime and was blanked for the rest of the contest by Marshall sophomore guard Jarrod West and Kinsey. Junior forward ShanQuan Hemphill led the Phoenix with 21 points and 13 rebounds.
The Phoenix still had a one-point edge when Kinsey jumped at the rim and tipped in Elmore's missed shot that put Marshall ahead 60-59 with 11:47 remaining, and the Herd stayed on top. Marshall outscored Green Bay 30-11 in the final 11 minutes.
Marshall outrebounded Green Bay 52-44 in one of its best games of the season. The Herd's 24 second-chance points and 58 points in the paint were season highs.
One statistical oddity was Marshall connecting on just three of its 3-point attempts (3 for 26) - a season low for a team averaging 10 a game. Burks and Kinsey were both 1 for 5 on their 3-point tries and Elmore was 1 for 8.
"It's crazy just seeing a 3-point shooting team not being able to throw a rock in the ocean," Burks said. "When things like that happen, we don't get too down on ourselves. We all find a different route to score."
It was the Herd's 11th game this season with 90 or more points.