When Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan meet on the hardwood, fans are sure to see a hard, physical battle. Sunday's meeting at University Arena was no exception as the two teams combined for 55 total fouls, including 3 technical fouls and an intentional foul.
Yet, the biggest contributor in the game was someone who was barely able to play in the game at all.
Shayne Whittington, who had been side-lined on Friday and Saturday with a nasty illness, put up a game-high 22 points and 11 rebounds while pacing a solid inside game to a 75-67 victory. What may be an even more impressive stat is that in 37 minutes of game time, Whittington was only one of two players on the day to not commit a single foul (the other being Jared Klein in 7 minutes of game time).
"I saw David (Brown) and Austin (Richie) go out and everyone told me 'go in'," a visibly and audibly still sick Whittington said after the game. "We started throwing the ball in the post and that was our emphasis today. In the second half, I just started making shots. . . I still feel like crap."
Whittington's presence was much needed. After being held in check by Da'Shonte Riley and Lekan Ajayi in their last meeting, WMU's senior big man had a monster second half with most of his fellow starters getting sparing minutes due to foul trouble. Whittington was able to play strong inside, picking up fouls on the two Eagle big men, and ended up with 17 points and 7 rebounds to help the Broncos pull away late.
But while the second half was Whittington's story, the first half was the officials.
After EMU jumped out to an early 8-2 lead, a David Brown 3-pointer cut the lead in half heading into the first media timeout. At that juncture, Brown was called for a light hand check, and the usually calm Austin Richie and Raven Lee were both assessed technical fouls shortly after.
Western Michigan would eventually tie the game up a few minutes later, and both teams would go back and forth, with the Broncos unable to gain control of the lead. That's when a Darell Combs foul on an Austin Richie 3-point attempt sparked what would become an 8-0 run over a two-minute span.
However, the physical play would continue to get ugly again, as the run saw its end on a Connar Tava dead-ball technical foul mid-way through the half. As Tucker Haymond and Daylen Harrison battled for a rebound off a missed Haymond lay-up, a scrum ensued and it was deemed that Tava potentially threw an elbow. Harrison's two free-throws cut the lead to 19-15, but that's as close as the Eagles would get, as the Broncos slowly began to build up a lead, getting it as high as 10 points before two Combs free-throws made it 34-26 at the half.
The fouls continued in the second half, but the Broncos were able to slowly build up their lead to 12 points in the first four minutes of the half. A Whittington jumper after the first media timeout would make it 48-37, and that's when Darell Combs took over for the Eagles.
Over a 3:40 span, Combs almost single-handedly took the 11 point lead and made it disappear as he would hit three 3-pointers and totaled 13 points during a 15-4 run. With the Eagles suddenly back into the game, the two teams would continue to battle back-and-forth over the next 7 minutes, with neither team really able to gain the upper hand on the other.
However, the tide seemed to turn fully after a Whittington tip-in was followed by a bad Mike Talley turnover into the hands of Richie in a 64-62 game. With Richie appearing be headed to be grabbing the first 4 point lead by either side in six minutes, Combs committed a hard foul on the junior guard. The resulting called was an intentional foul, and even though Richie only made one free-throw, a Whittington tip-in "and one" would push the lead to 68-62, and also saw the departure of Riley, who fouled out with 4:20 to go.
The Eagles would still manage to play solid defense, and held the Broncos from making a single shot from the floor, but missed shots would be the bane of EMU's existence over the next 2 minutes. EMU would miss key free-throws and a pair of 3-pointers as time ticked away from the game.
And while EMU was missing free-throws, WMU was sinking theirs, so even after a Daylen Harrison 3-pointer made it a 70-67 game with 43 seconds left, the Eagles were unable to get close enough to not force tough shots and the Broncos held on to retain first place in the MAC.
"It was a hard fought game by both teams," WMU head coach Steve Hawkins said after the game. "Both teams really went at it in a very physical game. It got a little chippy out there, but Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan are that familiar with each other. I'm really proud of the resilience shown out there (by my team)."
Western Michigan also got a solid 20 points from David Brown, who was in foul trouble most of the night. Brown got 11 of his points from the foul line on 11-of-15 shooting, but he hit a trio of key 3-pointers at separate times in the game. The Broncos also got a solid 8 point, 8 rebound performance from reserve A.J. Avery, who played 21 minutes and showed confidence down low with the long big men from EMU.
Combs finished the game with 21 points for the Eagles, and fellow bench player Glenn Bryant also had a solid 12 point game before fouling out with 29 seconds left in the game. He again put on a show against the Broncos with solid dunks in the second half, and even managed to dunk on Haymond again, though not as "poster-ific" as the last time those two came together. However, Riley and Ajayi were unable to shut down Whittington, and failed to register a single point between the two of them.
The Broncos now head on the road for three of their last four games, including games at Ball State and Toledo on Wednesday and Saturday respectively. Meanwhile, the Eagles look to turn around and try to hold onto the 6-seed position in the MAC with three straight home games, starting with Central Michigan on Wednesday, and getting the other two of the bottom three teams in the MAC West in the two other home games.