To use a tired cliche: defense wins championships. Well Eastern Michigan is out to prove that its smothering defense is capable of just that. The No. 6 Eagles upset No. 3 Buffalo Thursday night 69-64, coming back from a 10-point second-half deficit to win.
The Eagles rattled the Bulls from the get-go, and despite giving up their lead by halftime, and finding themselves down for most of the second-half managed to shake the Bulls again late in the game, and pull out the win. EMU did so despite having just two players score double-digits, and hitting under 40 percent from the field. Karrington Ward led the way for the Eagles with 19 points and seven rebounds and Mike Talley used a late scoring burst to add 12.
The Eagles defense was so stingy Thursday evening that it held MAC Player of the Year Javon McCrea to a season-low seven points on just 2-of-13 from the field. It was even able to overcome the hot-hand of Joshua Freelove, who came near tying a MAC Tournament record for 3-pointers made; he finished two shy of the record (10).
Rob Murphy's Eagles came out and smacked the Bulls in the mouth from the beginning, holding a 15-9 lead seven minutes in. The Eagles' zone made it near impossible for McCrea to penetrate and while UB was struggling to knock shots down the trio of Ward, Glenn Bryant and Raven Lee were unstoppable, combining for EMU's first 26 points.
The Eagles lead by as many as eight before giving way to a late first-half push by UB, with Buffalo retaking the lead for the first time since six minutes into the game with a Freelove 3-pointer with 31 seconds on the clock; his fourth on the night.
Buffalo carried that momentum into the second half, slowly building the lead until it reached 10 points with 15:48 left, The Bulls kept their big lead for a little more than two minutes before the Eagles clamped down on defense and started chopping away at the Bulls lead, bit by bit. First Darell combs chopped away with a quick five points. Then Ward chipped in another 3-pointer, his fourth and final one of the night, a couple Mike Talley free throws and a pair of Daylen Harrison 3-pointers later and EMU had taken the lead.
This was with roughly eight minutes to go, and by this point Ward was out as Murphy opted for the all-defense squad. The Eagles closed their talons, held on tight and choked out UB's offense. The Bulls went four minutes without a single point as EMU took a 62-55 lead. With 2:42 left in the game McCrea broke the drought with his first interior points of the night. Yeah, read that again.
But it was too little too late. Jarod Oldham scored five quick points to cut EMU's lead to one point, but the Eagles put the press on, causing a possible game-tying 3 by Freelove to miss its mark and a trio of free throws sealed the win.
Now it's on to the semifinals for EMU, where it will face No. 2 Toledo Friday night at The Q. As big of a clash of styles as Thursday night's game was, this one will top it. Toledo holds the No. 1 offense in the conference, EMU the top defense.
As for Buffalo, a shot at a tournament such as the CIT or CBT awaits, and Freelove and McCrea's MAC careers are officially over. Oh, we may have to wait until next fall to see more Bobby Hurley temper-tantrums too.