"I don't ever think we've been in first place in anything in my time here," Western Michigan big man Shayne Whittington said after his team's victory over the Miami RedHawks on Saturday. In this 68-57 victory, the Broncos take over possession of the hypothetical 1-seed in the MAC Tournament, by owning the tiebreak against fellow MAC West rival Toledo and (assuming Akron defeats NIU later in the day) the powerhouse Zips.
It wasn't easy though. The Broncos could only muster a single point, a Whittington free-throw, in the first six and a half minutes of the game. However, their defense kept them in the game, holding the RedHawks in check by only allowing seven points over that same stretch. After tying the game up, both teams would continue to struggle to the tune of an 11-11 score with under 6:30 to go in the half.
Then, the Broncos came alive to the tune of a 7-0 run, which was coupled with a pair of separate free-throws earlier to span a 9-0 run over five minutes. Western Michigan would stretch their lead to 10 points twice before settling into a 29-23 lead at the half. Whittington and junior point guard Austin Richie carried the team, with 10 points apiece. Meanwhile, Will Felder continued to pace the RedHawks with 8 points of his own playing most of the half.
The second half saw more of the same sluggish play that the first half saw, with the two teams combining for 23 points in the first 10 minutes and the RedHawks never pulling closer than three points of the Broncos. However, like Western Michigan did in the first half, Miami used scoring from the slow period to blitz their way to a 43-42 lead with 8:47 to play, with an 11-3 run.
Unfortunately for Miami, that would be the last time they'd sniff the lead as Western Michigan again put together a huge run, to the tune of 15-2 over a six minute span to push the lead to 12 points, the largest of the night at that point, and with just two minutes left to play. Miami would only manage to cut the lead to 7 points, but it wasn't enough.
The RedHawks forced 20 turnovers on the night, using a tough press and their zone gave Bronco guard, and reigning MAC West Player of the Week David Brown fits all game. Brown went just 1-for-6 from the floor and went 0-for-4 from beyond the arch, while turning the ball over a team high (and tied for a game-high) four times. However, he continued his double-digit scoring streak by driving and getting to the free-throw line, going 9-for-12 from the charity stripe.
Whittington and Richie were the stars, as Richie put up a game-high 20 points while nabbing 5 rebounds and 5 steals. In addition, he helped break that RedHawk press and asserted himself as the floor general both on and off the court. Whittington put up a solid double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds. He added 4 blocks as well.
For Miami, they may have forced 20 turnovers, but they had 19 themselves. The 13 steals they had were led by Quinten Rollins, who had a solid "stat-stuffer" line of 7 points, 4 assists, 5 steals, and 3 rebounds. Felder finished with 12 points, going quiet in the 2nd half. Geovonie McKnight also added 12 points on 6-of-12 shooting, but committed 4 turnovers.
Miami (9-14, 5-7) have now dropped four straight and five of their last six games, but return home for a three-game homestand, starting with the Kent State Golden Flashes on Wednesday night. Western Michigan (16-8, 9-3) faces the opposite scenario, having gone 7-1 since dropping back-to-back games against Eastern Michigan and Bowling Green in the second week of MAC play. However, they head on the road for four of their last six games, including trips to Toledo and Ohio, the latter coming on Wednesday.
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