As I was driving home from Cleveland after Eastern Michigan’s tournament loss to Western, one of my favorite songs by The Doors, “The End,” came on my iPod. It seemed appropriate. This song can never be fully detached from the great movie Apocalypse Now, and the visual of Martin Sheen’s head rising out of the water as he prepares to commit the deed he has been sent to accomplish. For the Eastern basketball team, however, the end wasn’t marked by the horror, the horror, but by a group that was out of gas and spent from the effort it took to get to the quarterfinals.
The team hung in there nicely in the first half, and even bounced out to a 29-23 lead. This was done mostly on the back of junior Daylen Harrison and his fellow junior Da’Shonte Riley, who continued his stellar post-season play with a solid performance against the Broncos. But it wasn’t enough, as J.R. Sims and Derek Thompson combined to shoot a dismal 5-23 from the field and an inexplicable 1-6 from the free throw line. Western, on fresh legs and led by junior center Shayne Whittington (who finished with 23 points and 8 boards) looked like a rested and loose team. They also played like it.
The real issue with the Western game was the pace, and how it strongly favored the Broncos. Eastern can run with other high scoring teams for a while, but to win they need to put together one of their famous defensive spurts where they completely shut down the opposition. This didn’t happen against WMU. And when Eastern inevitably went cold, the margin got away from them.
That isn’t to say this team rolled over, when Jamell Harris put back an offensive rebound for a dunk with eight minutes to go, Eastern closed the gap to 50-49 and was ready to grab the reigns and take the game over from the Broncs. But the defensive stand never happened — Western went on a 15-4 run, and it was, as Jim Morrison sang, The End.
In the short term, the lesson that Coach Rob Murphy needs to impart to his players is that losses during the regular season to Ball State, Bowling Green, and Central Michigan were what kept Eastern from landing the higher seed and early round byes. Murphy recognized this during the post-game press conference. But, in the meantime, the team as well as fans of EMU hoops can be satisfied with the effort put forth during the MAC Tournament.
I wrote in a post a while back that Eastern needed to make a tournament run to have the season qualify as a success, or at least as much of a success as a team that will not be winning the conference title can accomplish. This meant winning a couple games and not getting embarrassed when they do lose. I would say that this is precisely what the Eastern basketball team did. The avenged last year’s loss to NIU, then proceeded to beat a Miami team that was undermanned against Eastern before succumbing to WMU in a game that was for the most part a tight, competitive match. This year’s team can go home with their heads held high. The cause of advancing EMU hoops back to its glory years has been pushed further along.
In the coming weeks there will be final grades for this team, and a look ahead to next year. From where I have sat, it certainly qualified as an interesting year to cover Eastern hoops. I know some out there in MAC land don’t appreciate Eastern’s defensive style, but it produced competitive games and, as the adage goes, defense wins championships. I love the 2-3 zone and the frustration it imparts on the opposition. Covering the Eagles this season was never dull, but then again, MAC hoops rarely is. I certainly hope the MAC representative in the NCAA Tournament does the conference proud.
- Even though Shayne Whittington had a strong game, I felt that the new-and-improved Da’Shonte Riley was in effect. Riley finished with 8 points and 10 rebounds. The absence of blocked shots by Riley was due to the scheme Western was running and not a lack of effort on Da’Shonte’s part.
- Glenn Bryant got in foul trouble early and was unable to get into the flow of the game until the second half. This is part of the reason why Bronco freshman Darius Paul was able to put together such a strong game.
- Speaking of foul trouble, Rob Murphy was correct to point out after the game that the officiating was not balanced. Western is not a team that shies away from contact, yet Eastern was on the line for eleven free throw attmepts while Western had twenty-nine. I hate to use officiating as an excuse but sometimes the numbers do not lie.
- Eastern had ten assists in the first half, and just one in the second. The offensive prowess on display by the first half Eagles was marked by unselfishness by the team as a whole (especially solid interior passing) and determination by Daylen Harrison. Western was able to frustrate the Eagles in the second half, but I also can’t help but believe that the tank was empty for Sims and Thompson.
- This was the final game for Harris, Thompson, and Matt Balkema. I already wrote about Harris’s dunk, but Matt Balkema had a nice turnaround jump hook for a bucket in the first half. In the last minute of the game, when it was already decided, Balk put up a three and almost knocked it down. This marked the one time all year that from my reporter’s seat I cheered for a player. I yelled, “Please go in” while the ball was in the air. Alas, it did not, but kudos to Balk for all he gave to Eastern over the years. Same goes for Thompson and Harris. Best of luck to all three of them in the future.