That special connection that roommates share translated nicely to the basketball court Saturday for Kinard Gadsden-Gilliard and Hunter Harris.
The senior forwards combined for 36 points and 20 rebounds to lead East Tennessee State to a rousing 88-78 victory over Marshall at Freedom Hall.
Gadsden-Gilliard collected 19 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. Many of the latter were passes inside to Harris, who scored 17 points to go with 13 rebounds and a couple of blocked shots.
The chemistry was just right.
“We’re roommates and have been having some deep conversations,” said Harris, with a broad smile. “We’re both seniors, we’re both leaders, and we know we need to step up.”
The two scored 12 of the Bucs’ final 20 points, helping keep the Thundering Herd at bay as a crowd of 3,016 roared its approval. Marshall had cut a 17-point second-half deficit to two, but could get no closer.
The scene conjured up memories of old times between the former Southern Conference rivals, with a different backdrop.
The Bucs (3-5) have won all three of their scheduled games at Freedom Hall. They’re supposed to go back to the Dome for the rest of the season, though athletic director Richard Sander said earlier in the week that could change.
“Freedom Hall has been good to us,” said ETSU coach Murry Bartow. “I thought there was a lot of energy today in this building. We got off to a good start, had a good run, and in the second half we held on for dear life.”
Rashawn Rembert and Lester Wilson scored 13 points apiece for the Bucs, who shot 53 percent from the field. They each made three 3-pointers.
Marshall (4-3) was led by freshman point guard Kareem Canty, with 19 points and six assists. Chris Thomas scored 17 points, while Elijah Pittman had 16 and Ryan Taylor 10. Taylor pulled down 14 rebounds.
It was a long day for Pittman, the 6-9 forward who came in averaging 25 points a game. He went 4 of 14 from the field (2 of 12 from 3-point range) and scored only four points in the first half, showing his frustration with a technical foul.
He certainly had the Bucs’ attention.
“We knew NBA scouts were in the building looking at one of their guys,” said Gadsden-Gilliard. “This is a talented team.”
The Herd trailed 46-34 at the half and never found its rhythm for long against ETSU’s zone defenses. They had been averaging over 90 points a game and shooting 51 percent from the field.
The Bucs held them to 43 percent, including 6 of 30 on 3-pointers.
“We knew they were going to zone us for 40 minutes,” said Marshall coach Tom Herrion. “We just attacked too quick, shot too quick. In the second half when we made our run, we were a lot more patient.”
The Herd used an 11-2 run to pull within four, at 64-60, with 9:24 left. When TyQuane Goard made a free throw four minutes later, the ETSU lead was only two.
But that’s when the roommates got it going, and the Bucs pulled away again. Harris had three baskets in the last 3:12, punctuating the victory with a dunk with 20 seconds remaining.
Fouls loomed large throughout the game. The Bucs had five players with four personals and still more than 13 minutes remaining.
As Bartow watched the lead shrink, he decided he couldn’t leave them on the bench for long.
“We were in a world of hurt,” said Bartow. “We decided to roll the dice with nine minutes left and put four guys in the game with four fouls. We said, ‘Hey, we have a great chance to beat Marshall, to beat a Conference USA team,’ and we rolled the dice.”
Wilson fouled out with more than six minutes left, and A.J. Merriweather followed with less than two.
Marshall, however, couldn’t make ETSU’s foul trouble pay off. The Herd was just 18 of 35 at the free-throw line, while the Bucs were 21 of 30.
“It was another game where free throws contributed mightily to our demise,” said Herrion, whose team was shooting 62.1 percent for the season.
For the Bucs, the win was a major boost after their 98-83 loss Wednesday at Tennessee Tech. They were outrebounded by 19 there, and guys like Gadsden-Gilliard and Harris took it personally.
“I had 20 points but only one assist and a couple of turnovers,” he said. “So I was scoring but not helping other guys. I focused on that tonight.”
Bartow said the team was dedicating the victory to ETSU president Brian Noland, who has been recovering from injuries sustained a car accident two weeks ago.
“He’s a West Virginia grad, and I don’t know how much West Virginia grads like Marshall,” said Bartow. “I know he’s had this one circled on his calendar for awhile.”
The Bucs travel to Austin Peay on Wednesday night, then on to Georgia Tech on Saturday.