Eastern Michigan 45, Northern Illinois 44
It was almost déjà vu all over again. Bad memories from last year’s tournament home defeat to a 4-25 Northern Illinois team. Bad memories of the complete giveaway in this year’s Bracketbuster game against Missouri State. Eastern was collapsing under the weight of a late NIU run. With two minutes left in the game, Husky guard Travon Baker nailed a three-pointer to give NIU a 44-42 advantage. Momentum had swung, and the feeling of déjà vu flooded Eagle Nation, as another winnable game against a less talented team was slipping away.
This time, however, a statement game from Da’Shonte Riley and a clutch three by Jalen Ross allowed Eastern to eek out a one point victory over the 5-24 Huskies. Survive and advance. Eastern did just that, albeit on a razor’s edge.
Much like the Toledo game, things started out very promising for EMU, and early buckets by Glenn Bryant and a pair of threes from Derek Thompson and J.R. Sims got Eastern rolling early. Northern Illinois was determined to make it close, and played with defensive intensity and a chip on their shoulder in the first half. The Huskies did a nice job containing Thompson and Bryant, but they had no answer for Da’Shonte Riley, who scored 11 points in the first half and carried the Eagles on his back for most of this night. Riley finished the game with 13 points, 11 rebounds, and 4 blocks.
I call it a statement game by Riley because it can only be a complete confidence booster for the junior center. Big time players show up in big games, and the MAC Conference Tournament certainly qualifies as big. Riley was his usual disruptive self on defense, more so on this night as he enjoyed a significant height (and skill) advantage over NIU’s big men. But offensively, and specifically on the offensive glass, was where Riley stood out the most. Riley had three offensive tip-ins off teammate misses. The Eagles won by one point. Do the math. Without this contribution from Riley EMU is upset by an inferior team for the second straight year. It would have been devastating.
Once the second half was underway Eastern had a good run, when buckets by Bryant, Daylen Harrison, and a couple free throws added by Bryant gave them a ten point lead. After a few minutes of back and forth, Bryant hit another jumper and Eastern was up 40-29 with eight minutes left in the game. Things began to unravel over the next six minutes, however, and NIU would go on a 15-2 run.
The final five points for Eastern would be scored by an unlikely hero, Jalen Ross, and EMU exorcised the demons of last year and punched their ticket to Cleveland.
This doesn’t belie the fact that this group has yet to learn how to put a team away. When teams that understand how to do this are up by eleven with eight minutes to go, they turn on the gas and dig their heels into the neck of the opponent (not literally). What happened to Eastern against Missouri State — and almost happened last night — is that the team starts playing scared, afraid to lose. It takes leadership to snap out of that kind of mentality. The fact that they were able to do just that (by the thinnest of margins) is a credit to the team.
Next up in the survive and advance-a-thon known as post-season college hoops is the Miami Red Hawks, the 11th seed in the tournament and a team Eastern dispatched on their home floor earlier this season. Miami has improved as the year went on, and did have some success trapping EMU in the first meeting. Clearly Miami thinks they can pressure EMU point guards into turnovers. In theory it is a plausible strategy, but as Rob Murphy said, when they put two guys on the ball, someone is open. How well Eastern’s guards deal with the trap will determine whether or not they get a crack at Western on Thursday.
I know we as die-hard Eastern basketball fans shouldn’t be giddy after a win over a 5-24 team that had their leading scorer on the bench the whole game. But given last year’s tournament result, and the breakout game by Riley, we will allow ourselves a day of giddiness.
For now it is on to Cleveland, and the possibilities are wide open. It’s what we love about March Madness.
- Along with knocking down the game winning three, Jalen Ross provided a steady hand at the point. It is a lot of pressure to put on a freshman, but Ross will have to continue to handle the ball well and minimize turnovers if Eastern is to continue to advance.
- Glenn Bryant played well last night, but still needs to aggressively take the ball to the hoop more often. Bryant did put forth a strong defensive effort, including a crucial blocked shot with two seconds left.
- Speaking of Bryant, the junior forward was named All-MAC Honorable Mention. Congratulations to Glenn, those of us who follow the team closely know that Bryant has all the tools to dominate in this conference.
- I was a little surprised that senior guard Derek Thompson didn’t end up on the Honorable Mention list as well. Perhaps a strong tournament run and a place on the All-Tourney team would be a nice consolation prize.
- On Riley’s career night, Rob Murphy pointed out that the Eagle center played 36 minutes, whereas his usual number is in the mid-twenties. After the game Riley talked about stepping up and leading the team. I hope the team takes inspiration from his gutsy performance, and that Riley continues to be assertive around the hoop.
- One last thing — attendance was 302. I think there were more people at my son’s 3rd grade music concert. EMU Marketing is a complete disaster. More on that after the season.