Eastern Michigan 60, Eastern Illinois 52
One of Yogi Berra’s great Yogi-isms is “it was deja-vu all over again.” Last night at the Convocation Center a new team with many new faces produced a similar result—an ugly win.
We observers of Eastern hoops grew to appreciate winning ugly last year. The result was a MAC West title with an offensively challenged group. We managed to grind out wins when we needed them with impressive defensive intensity and a slew of blocked shots. After 35 minutes of relying on Derek Thompson threes and Daylen Harrison free throws, the offense woke up with a 25-9 run to finish the game. The result: a hard fought 60-52 victory over Eastern Illinois University.
Aside from bringing the lone consonant to the battle of EMU vs. EIU, the Eagles brought the real difference makers, two inside players (Da’Shonte Riley and Jamell Harris) that can completely disrupt their opponent’s inside game. Eastern blocked ten shots, all while continuing to apply the pressure of Rob Murphy’s zone defense.
The game started out promising enough, a trey by Thompson, followed by a powerful dunk by Glenn Bryant. The pace settled into a more favorable tempo for EIU, and they managed to keep it close thanks to disciplined play on both ends of the court, and the continuing erratic point guard play from Jalen Ross and Ray Lee that has plagued our early season. Riley got into foul trouble and EIU climbed to a three point halftime lead.
After halftime, the situation deteriorated. Point guard play was still a mess. Riley was in foul trouble and playing uninspired. A frustration technical foul by Matt Balkema led to an 8-0 run by EIU.
With the game slipping away, Rob Murphy made two crucial decisions. Having told backup point guard Austin Harper to “Be ready,” Murphy put Harper in to stabilize the backcourt play. After the game, Murphy said that while Ross and Lee may have the higher ceiling, he knew that Harper could provide a steady hand if needed. It was needed. Harper provided the necessary spark, he hit a crucial three, knocked down a couple of free throws, and had key assists on threes by Thompson and Harrison down the stretch.
The other key decision made by Murphy was not only to keep Riley, who had picked up four fouls, in the game but to motivate him to take charge. After the game Murphy said that he challenged Riley to perform during a timeout. The difference in Riley was immediately apparent, as he began to dominate the paint, blocking shots and controlling the boards.
In the end Eastern was able to gut out an ugly win. Yes, the point guard play is a huge red flag. Yes, Glenn Bryant was outplayed by EIU forward Sherman Blanford, a guy I suspect was not recruited by SEC schools. But a win is a win, and I can’t think of any reason why our flaws cannot be improved upon. Besides, with Kentucky, Purdue, Michigan, and Syracuse on the horizon, we’ll take the wins now however ugly they may be.
Side Note: I was prepared to use the press conference as an opportunity to get a comment from Coach Murphy on the James Still situation. He unfortunately refused to answer any questions about Still. I say unfortunately because I honestly believe that Coach Murphy needs to not only address the Still situation, but also the odd circumstances around his near departure this summer. I hope to be able to get answers on these subjects at some point down the road.