Written by Justin Prince.
The Marshall Thundering Herd turned up the defensive intensity Thursday night, allowing a season low 63 points while handing Middle Tennessee its first conference and road loss of the season, 73-63.
The Blue Raiders came into Huntington having won 15 straight games against Conference USA opponents including a win over the Herd in last year’s conference title game, but Marshall was able to force Middle into a season high 19 turnovers and take the Raiders out of an offensive rhythm.
A big part of the Herd’s success was the return of 6-10 forward Ajdin Penava, who hadn’t played since going down with an ankle injury early in Marshall’s loss to Western Kentucky back on January 6.
Against Middle Tennessee, the nation’s leading shot blocker immediately made his presence felt with an assist on Marshall’s opening basket and a couple of early blocks. Together, Penava, with C.J. Burks and Jon Elmore the Thundering Herd’s version of a “Big Three,” filled up the stat sheet. The trio combined for 61 points, 19 rebounds, 13 assists and eight blocked shots.
“First time we’ve had everybody available and healthy in about a month,” Marshall head coach Dan D’Antoni said. “When we can get at full strength and get everyone on the court together you see what we are capable of. We’re just going to keep getting better and better. Biggest thing is we are finally healthy.”
The Herd also got back 6-7 freshman, Darius George, who had missed the last six games with a broken bone in his foot. George played sparingly in his return but he did grab a coupe of rebounds and threw down a monster dunk on a feed from junior Rondale Watson.
Nick King came into the game the second leading scorer in C-USA behind Elmore and was leading a red hot Blue Raiders team who had won five straight. King did manage 14 points against the Herd, but was just 6-19 shooting.
“I thought we did a really nice job defensively tonight,” D’Antoni said. “We were real active with our hands and played hard and aggressive on that end of the floor. Of course it helps when you get a big shot blocker like Penava back so that you know you got someone who can protect the rim. Let’s you take some more chances.”
The Herd will get one day of rest before another big CUSA clash with UAB inside the Cam Henderson Center on Saturday. That game is scheduled for a 7 p.m. start and D’Antoni said he hopes for a big crowd.
“We want to get the crowd here and get them involved,” D’Antoni said. “We’ve got a good team that will play hard for them and we want them here to support Marshall. So hopefully we can continue to get more people here and have another great atmosphere on Saturday.”