Playing in their first postseason game in 16 years against a sharp-shooting and experienced Norfolk State team, it seemed imperative that the Eastern Michigan do everything they could to separate themselves and pull away early in the game.
That didn't happen.
Despite squandering numerous chances to pull away from Norfolk State, Eastern Michigan was able to hold on for a 58-54 victory in the first round of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament Tuesday night in Ypsilanti (Editor's note: with more dustballs in the stands than people).
Eastern went only 2-8 from the charity stripe in the closing minutes and never led by more than seven throughout the contest. However, the Eagles held Norfolk State to just 41 percent shooting from the field and got a huge boost from its bench, which added 16 points. Mike Talley led the way in scoring for the Eagles with 14, and Raven Lee poured in 12.
The Eagles came out sluggish in the first half, getting out-hustled by the Spartans. Norfolk State grabbed 10 offensive rebounds in the first half alone, and held a huge advantage on the glass. In the midst of a four-minute Eagle scoring drought, Norfolk's Malcolm Hawkins drained a 3-pointer to give the Spartans an early five-point lead.
As they have done for much of the season, the Eagles looked to Talley for a spark. His 3-pointer broke the drought and provided Eastern with some momentum. But it was Darell Combs who turned the tide. His 3-pointer and personal 5-0 run off the bench gave Eastern Michigan a lead they didn't relinquish for the rest of the game..
Though the Eagles never trailed the Spartans in the second half of the game, it wasn't exactly smooth sailing. It seemed every time Eastern looked ready to pull away for good, the Spartans found a way to cut the lead to a single possession.
With 13:28 remaining, high-flyer Glenn Bryant III let loose a rim rocker to give the Eagles a six-point lead and some momentum. But, seconds later, Norfolk State senior Pendarvis Williams responded with a deep three to cut the lead to a single possession at 42-39.
Eastern Michigan's 2-3 zone held the Spartans in check throughout the second half, holding Norfolk State to just 23 points in the period. But the Eagles also had problems on the offensive end, including a four minute span in which they failed to hit a field goal. However, they continued to control the game with efficient foul shooting. That is, until crunch time.
Karrington Ward and Talley both missed front ends of a one-and-one with under two minutes to play, Olalekan Ajayi missed both foul shots in a double bonus chance with under a minute to play in a three-point game, and Da'Shonte Riley got into a scruff with Norfolk big man RaShid Gaston down the stretch and was called for a technical foul. But Norfolk State could not hit a field goal in the final 1:25, and Karrington Ward finally put the game out of reach with a foul shot with three seconds remaining.
Though Eastern Michigan advances to the second round of the CIT, it will have to wait until Wednesday night to learn its next opponent.