March 16, 2016 Live Video! Live Audio! (WMUL) Game Notes
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Marshall makes its first trip to the Women's NIT with a visit to longtime rival Ohio on Thursday night, and riding on the bus with the Herd as it heads up the road this evening is an attitude that has carried Coach Matt Daniel's team all season.
It's not where you start; it's where you finish.
When Marshall opened the 2015-16 season back on Nov. 13 with an out-of-breath, 104-101 triumph at Morehead State, eight of the 12 healthy players on Daniel's roster were in their first game in a Herd uniform. Six were freshmen ... and Marshall had been picked to finish 10th in the 14-team Conference USA race by Daniel's sideline peers.
Four months later, the Herd (21-11) has more wins than all but one team (24-5 in 1986-87) in the Herd women's hoops history dating to 1969-70. Marshall has only its third postseason bid in its major college era, which dates to 1981-82. And while finishing tied for sixth in the C-USA standings, the Herd won a school-best 11 C-USA games (regular season and tournament) in its 11 years in the league.
Forward Leah Scott and point guard Norrisha Victrum are the team's only seniors, and the Herd has been given a tough WNIT assignment in the Bobcats (24-6), the Mid-American Conference regular-season champion that is 11-1 at home this season and has won 19 of its last 22 - with all three losses to Buffalo, which topped Ohio for the MAC Tournament title and NCAA bid.
The 5-foot-5 Victrum, the only player left in the program from prior to Daniel's May 2012 hiring - she had signed the previous November - said she knew this day would come.
"I thought it was going to take a lot of building, but I knew it was going to come within the years I was here," said Victrum, a Columbia, S.C., native who heads to the OU Convocation Center needing only five points to become Marshall's 20th career 1,000-point scorer. "I knew it would take a lot of work by everyone, a lot of discipline to get where we are. But we made it."
The WNIT debut will be the Herd's 33rd game, tying the school mark set by the 2007-08 club that finished 17-16. It's been a different kind of "long season" than Daniel's earlier ones.
Daniel's first two Herd seasons ended 9-21 and 11-20 before Marshall reached the WBI quarterfinals last season and finished 17-15 - a mark that likely would have been better had four-year playmaker Victrum not torn her right ACL in late February and missed the final six games as the Herd went 1-5.
This season, Marshall was 16-6 before it dropped four of five in a late February stretch. Stressing defense in crucial road games affecting tournament seeding, Marshall won at Louisiana Tech and Southern Miss, and then downed FIU and upset Western Kentucky before falling to eventual C-USA Tournament champ Middle Tennessee in the semifinals in Birmingham, Ala.
"I think it reached a point late in the season where we just wanted to prove everybody wrong," Victrum said. "That, and knowing it's you win or you go home right now. If we had lost in the conference tournament before we did, we wouldn't be in the WNIT.
"These girls don't want to stop playing. A lot of it is just the growth of a young team. It takes a while to get that feel of the game as a group."
Scott, finishing her third Marshall season, received an additional year of eligibility for 2015-16 after playing only 26 minutes in three games for Central Michigan in 2011-12 before heading to Iowa Western Community College following her father falling ill at their Detroit home.
"When I got here, I knew I had two years for sure and Coach Daniel said we were going to try to build this program," said Scott, who leads the Herd with averages of 16.3 points and 6.6 rebounds. "I took the role of becoming a leader. It was hard for me, but I got the hang of it, and every year, we just got better. I think it became a mindset.
The WNIT, it's very exciting to be able to play in it. It's a reward. I'm happy we got into it. I figured we were going to be in because the conference was good and we played well in it and played well down the stretch. It was 10 times better than last year."
With so much youth on the roster and 6-4 Michigan transfer Terra Stapleton, from Proctorville, Ohio, sitting out to join the Herd next December, Daniel has Marshall positioned to keep climbing. This season, with so much new, he built a friendly non-conference schedule to aid success and confidence heading into C-USA play.
The Herd went 10-1 in non-league games, with eight of those 11 at the Henderson Center, including two non-Division I dates. Scott said something else was in play, too.
"I don't know that the early schedule helped us as much as I just think we finally realized we had to play harder," Scott said. "And I think it took us some time to get to know each other's skills, how each of us play off one another. It just took time to know one another better."
Scott and Victrum were the only returning starters. Junior forward Kiana Evans had averaged only 1.4 points and 5.2 minutes per game over her first two seasons. Guard Taylor Porter and post player Talequia Hamilton were joining the team after transferring to Marshall.
"I think the early schedule gave a lot of my teammates some confidence and helped us learn to play together and win together," Victrum said. "We work hard, we sacrifice. We shed tears, we bleed. We're doing exactly what everybody else is doing and I think we deserve the outcome we've gotten."
While the Herd fell three times to league champ Middle Tennessee, Marshall was the only C-USA club to defeat both of the other two contenders, UTEP (regular season) and WKU (tournament). Those two have the highest RPI rankings (Nos. 37 and 38) outside the NCAA field, and both join Marshall and Charlotte as C-USA clubs in the WNIT's 64-team bracket.
Some among Daniel's team figured UTEP (28-4), the C-USA regular-season champ, would be an at-large selection for the NCAA Tournament. So, when Herd players watched the NCAA bracket revealed Monday night, there was some perspiration about their WNIT potential.
"When I saw UTEP didn't get into the NCAA, I felt like we weren't going to get in the WNIT," said Victrum, who ranks no. 3 in Herd career assists with 393. "Still, something in my head was saying we were going to make it.
"We had a great record, 21 wins, beat some good teams in our conference and I just think it was our time. And besides, with my teammates, I wasn't ready to say goodbye."
Scott, with 1,354 points, needs seven to reach the top five in Marshall history. In a three-year span, only Karen Pelphrey (2,163 points from 1983-84 through '85-86) and Kristina Behnfeldt (1,679 from 1996-97 through '98-99) have scored more.
"I was anxious about the WNIT, but Coach Daniel had faith in us," Scott said. "He just kept telling us, reminding us, `We're going to get in. We're going to get in. Don't worry about it.' It was just a matter of seeing our names up there. And then it happened."