HUNTINGTON — Western Kentucky assaulted Marshall from the opening tip of a 112-87 victory Saturday night, but the Thundering Herd suffered more than a 25-point defeat.
Ajdin Penava, who had a Herculean five blocked shots in the first four minutes, went down with an ankle injury and returned later with an orthopedic boot on his right ankle. He may be out 2-3 weeks if it’s a sprain; if there is a fracture, count on 3-5 weeks.
By the time Penava was helped off the floor, the Hilltoppers were already up 10-1. With a season-high crowd of 6,826 at Cam Henderson Center mostly groaning, it never got better for the home team.
When the final horn mercifully blew, the Herd’s 11-game home winning streak was long gone, as well as its four-game streak over the Hilltoppers.
Even worse, it was the largest margin of defeat at home in 22 years, since the infamous 106-57 loss during the Billy Donovan era, on Jan. 27, 1996.
Darius Thompson had his way with the Herd (11-5, 2-1 Conference USA), racking up a triple-double of 33 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. Justin Johnson, who combined with Dwight Coleby to dominate inside after Penava’s exit, scored 27, and Coleby had 18 with 14 rebounds.
Combined, those three were 31 of 47 from the floor, leading the Hilltoppers to a 62.5 percent clip. And it gets worse for the Herd — WKU dominated in points in the paint and in rebounds (53-26).
Of the Hilltoppers’ 45 baskets, nine were dunks.
“They had already busted us in the mouth when Ajdin was on the floor,” said guard Jarrod West. “Adjin came out, and we knew that was a big loss for sure. They just busted us, I think, from start to finish. They were more physical inside, and I think Ajdin, who leads the country in blocks, five blocks in four minutes, who knows how many fewer layups or dunks they would have gotten if he was on the floor.”
It wasn’t a good night for Marshall’s top two scorers, Jon Elmore and C.J. Burks. Elmore went 5 of 15 from the floor and was hit with a first-half technical foul, and Burks went 6 of 22. That they scored 19 and 18 points and each had eight assists was inconsequential.
“I thought we guarded Elmore about as well as you can guard him,” said WKU coach Rick Stansbury. “He’s a terrific player, and there’s no one way you can stop that young man. But I thought, Tavion [Hollingsworth], that young freshman guy, did about as good a job as you can do on him.”
West’s team-high 20 points was more impressive. Shooting all 3-pointers, he hit 6 of 9, leading the Herd to an 18-of-37 performance from behind the arc. Many of those came against a zone defense, which WKU used a lot to keep its short rotation from tiring.
Jannson Williams, playing 35 minutes after Penava departed, went 7 of 10 from the floor and scored a career-high 18 points. But he couldn’t stop the onslaught at the other end.
The Hilltoppers (11-5, 3-0) stretched that 10-1 lead to 38-13, as Thompson scored 19 of their first 28. The halftime lead was 61-35, and a 9-2 start to the second half stretched that to 73-40.
Marshall spent the week getting past a number of illnesses, and now it has to figure out how to win without Penava — and do it quickly. Charlotte and Old Dominion aren’t going to show any mercy in their own buildings next week.
“I don’t think that’s our ball club at its best, obviously,” Marshall coach Dan D’Antoni said. “It hurts a lot when you lose Penava. They got a lot of dunks toward the end, which wouldn’t happen. The inside game wouldn’t be nearly as effective.”
The Herd travels to Charlotte on Thursday, with a trip to Old Dominion two days later. The next game at the Henderson Center is Jan. 18 against defending C-USA champion Middle Tennessee.