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MCGILL: Herd Out-Toughs Middle Tennessee in C-USA Showdown

Jan. 18, 2018

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By Chuck McGill

D'Antoni Press Conference

Box Score (PDF)

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Middle Tennessee has been Conference USA’s toughest out in recent seasons. On Thursday night, in front of 5,320 people inside the Henderson Center, the Marshall men’s basketball team found a way to beat the league stalwarts at their own game.

The Thundering Herd gave the visiting Blue Raiders their first conference loss, 73-63, in a game that had MT coach Kermit Davis taking a harder look at the Marshall team his program ousted in the C-USA tournament championship game last March.

“We’ve won a lot of games in this league on toughness and rebounding,” Davis said. “They out-toughed us.”

Davis, who has 457 career wins in 23 years as a college hoops coach, witnessed his team win the rebounding war – 39-32 – but not much else.

“They got to 50-50 balls; I thought they made hustle plays,” he said. “Getting (Ajdin Penava) back changes their whole team. He’s one of the most improved players in college basketball. I like the depth of their team.”

Middle Tennessee entered Thursday night’s nationally broadcast showdown undefeated in five league games. The Blue Raiders had won 25 of 26 games against C-USA opponents, including last season’s conference tournament, the last two seasons.

Marshall (13-6, 4-2 C-USA) jumped out to an early 13-5 lead thanks to an 8-0 run that lasted 3:04. MT clawed back to tie the game at 17-17 and 19-19, and then took the lead, 21-19, on a basket by senior Nick King. But junior guard Jon Elmore answered with a go-ahead 3 and Penava went coast-to-coast for a 3-point play that shifted momentum.

The Herd took a 36-34 lead into intermission. Penava had three blocks in the first half in a return from injury. He had missed two games (Charlotte and Old Dominion) and most of a third (WKU) with a leg injury.

“It felt great,” Penava said of his return. “I was excited; I was happy to be back on the court with the guys and compete. It’s been too long of a break for me.”

MT (13-5, 5-1 C-USA) came out strong in the second half with a 3-pointer by senior guard Giddy Potts and another bucket by King that gave the visitors a 39-36 lead. But then the Herd’s 3-pointers started to fall, first a pair of long-range bombs by junior guard C.J. Burks, and then another 3 by freshman guard Jarrod West that flipped a 3-point deficit into a 6-point lead.

Then Penava, who had 5 points at the half, joined the scoring. MT cut the deficit to 4 points twice in the second half, but Penava answered with a pair of free throws and a basket to make it 55-47. Later, after Potts made it 55-51, Herd, it was Elmore who finished a 3-point play to extend the lead again.

“The past two weeks we’ve been beat up, sick, injured, hurt. Everybody has been struggling a little bit,” Elmore said. “We’re starting to get everybody back together and see what we’re capable of when we have all of our pieces.

“That’s one of the top teams in the league and we just handled them pretty good. I think we’re going to be really good if we keep progressing like we should and everybody stays healthy.”

Elmore, the only player in Division I basketball averaging at least 20 points, seven assists and five rebounds, filled the stat sheet once again. He scored 19 points, dished out eight assists, grabbed six rebounds and collected five steals in 38 minutes.

“I think we really locked in on defense tonight,” Elmore said.

Penava scored 17 points and grabbed seven rebounds in his return. He also added six blocks, again moving up the career rejections list at Marshall.

“We’re super ecstatic to have him back,” Elmore said. “You see the kind of plays he’s capable of making.”

Burks scored a game-high 25 points, leading the Herd in scoring for the third consecutive game. He made 9 of 16 from the field, 5 of 8 from 3-point range and grabbed six rebounds.

Potts (15 points) and Antwain Johnson (15 points) led MT in scoring.

“Our kids didn’t back down. I was proud of them,” D’Antoni said, later adding, “We’ve been sick and hurt for a while. You can see the potential we have. Just keep on building.”

NOTES: Elmore scored in double figures for the 53rd consecutive game … D’Antoni captured the 60th win of his MU career … Penava started the game tied with Ryan Taylor for No. 7 on the career blocks list. Penava’s six blocks give him 128 for his career, leaving behind Taylor and passing Nigel Spikes (123) for No. 6 on the career list … Burks surpassed 900 career points … Burks passed one of his assistant coaches, Cornelius Jackson, on the career 3-pointers list. Burks now has 109, which is tied with Mark Dorris on the career list. Jackson made 107 career 3s … Elmore fell a single point shy of 1,500 for his career, but passed DeAndre Kane for No. 16 on the career scoring list. Elmore now has 1,499 points; Kane scored 1,496.