Dan D'Antoni was a few seconds into a recent ESPN interview when he jokingly interrupted the host.

"You doubted us too, didn't you?" D'Antoni asked.

The ESPN announcer denied the charge, but there was no shortage of doubters when D'Antoni — now 70 years old, and for 30 years the coach at Socastee High School near Myrtle Beach — was hired at Marshall University in 2014.

Opposing Conference USA coaches are "downright giddy" about the hire, reported college basketball writer Jeff Goodman at the time.

"I got a text from the NBA side predicting Marshall's hire 'will be the worst thing you've ever witnessed,'" said Gary Parrish, another national writer. "All jokes aside, this is baffling to college and NBA folks. Nobody sees it working."

Now it's D'Antoni who is enjoying the last laugh after coaching Marshall, his alma mater, to its first NCAA Tournament berth in 31 years.

The Thundering Herd (24-10) of Huntington, W. Va., is a No. 13 seed after winning the Conference USA Tournament, and faces No. 4 Wichita State (25-7) on Friday in San Diego, the same site where College of Charleston and Clemson will play.

"It's just believing in the kids and putting quality kids on the floor," D A'ntoni said in a recent interview. "They carry a coach when you have that."

D'Antoni, a West Virginia native, has deep roots at Marshall, where he played from 1966-70. He had many friends and colleagues on the Marshall football team plane that crashed on Nov. 14, 1970, killing all 75 people on board.

Two on board were Marshall's team physician, Dr. Ray Hagley, and his wife, Shirley. D'Antoni often babysat for their children, and was with the kids when the plane went down.

"A lot of people think the plane crash was just about football," D'Antoni said. "But you have to understand, our greatest basketball supporters were on that plane, too. We lost them, too.

"Doc Hagley and his wife always wanted me to coach at Marshall, and it didn't look like I'd get the chance. It took 50 years for me to finally get back here, and that's a lot of what goes into this for me: Building back the program that he gave his life for."

D'Antoni said he was so shaken by the plane crash that he moved down to Myrtle Beach and "just played golf" for four or five years, putting his career on hold. It was at the golf course that he met the principal at Socastee High, who hired him as the boys' basketball coach.

At Socastee, D'Antoni won more than 500 games and established the famed Beach Ball Classic basketball tournament; he was inducted into the S.C. Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame in 2016.

After leaving Socastee in 2005, D'Antoni worked as an NBA assistant for his brother, Mike, the head coach with the Suns, Knicks and Lakers. With Mike, Dan D'Antoni honed his analytics-based view of basketball, which emphasizes 3-point shots, free throws and shots at the rim.

"I changed a long time ago," D'Antoni said last year. "I coached for 15 years like a dummy, running down there real hard so I can get it in there for the worst shot in basketball. I didn't even know what I was doing."

Marshall plays at the sixth-fastest tempo in the nation, according to kenpom.com, and takes 45.6 percent of its shots from 3-point range, ranking 27th among 351 Division I teams.

Jon Elmore, a 6-3 junior who transferred from VMI, averages 22.8 points per game for the Herd, with 6-4 junior C.J. Burks at 20.5 ppg and 6-9 junior Ajdin Penava at 15.5 ppg.

Marshall and Wichita State have a couple of ties. Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall was an assistant at Marshall from 1996-98 after leaving College of Charleston; and Wichita State suffered a horrific plane crash of its own just weeks before the Marshall crash in 1970, losing 31 people when one of two planes carrying the football team crashed on Oct. 2, 1970.

Reach Jeff Hartsell at 843-937-5596. Follow on Twitter @Jeff_fromthePC

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