It wasn't pretty, it wasn't easy, but in the end, "a win's a win".
"It's not the greatest win, it's not the win we wanted, but we'll take it," Western Michigan guard David Brown said after his team's 61-56 victory over a red-hot Northern Illinois team on Tuesday night. It was possibly the last home game for the 5th year senior, but between possible CBI, CIT, or NIT berths and a medical red-shirt, the Broncos' leading scorer could return next season.
His fellow partner-in-crime Shayne Whittington will not be back. Whittington made the most of it by putting up a game-high 21 points, but saw his double-double streak end with just a mere 3 rebounds against a suffocating Huskie defense.
The Broncos were determined to work it inside to Whittington early, going up against Jordan Threloff, but the collapsing defense forced multiple turnovers and forced a flurry of missed shots from the rest of the Western Michigan team. However, the Huskies were unable to capitalize by missing multiple shots themselves, making costly turnovers, and getting into early foul trouble.
In fact, it took nearly nine minutes before a Jared Klein lay-up pushed the Broncos past double-digits. It'd be another minute before an Aksel Bolin jumper pushed the Huskies to that same point, making it an 11-10 game. 10 seconds later, Bolin would hit a 3-pointer to give the Huskies the start of first of the large portion of the game that they'd lead.
For the rest of the first half, Western Michigan would try to claw their way back into the lead, but would only do it twice, with three minutes and 30 seconds left each, and would only lead by a single point. Otherwise, NIU held a fairly solid lead as each teams traded mini-runs, oscillating the Huskie lead between one and five points. An Aaric Armstead lay-up with 15 seconds left gave NIU a 25-24 lead at the half.
While Whittington still managed to put up 11 points in the half, Brown was held to just 2 points on 1-for-4 shooting. However, the senior guard woke up in the second half, although it took a little bit to warm up.
In fact, both teams struggled to score early on, as the first 2:33 went by before an Armstead lay-up made it 27-24, and the Broncos wouldn't score until a Brown lay-up made it 29-26 with 16:15 to go. But that was the start of the tug-of-war as Brown paced the Broncos while Armstead seemed to hit jumper after jumper and Threloff asserted his dominance down low.
Again, the Huskie lead oscillated between one and five points over the next 11 minutes. Every time the Broncos seemed to get close and bring the crowd back into the game, it seemed Armstead, his brother Aaron, or Threloff made a solid basket to quiet things down.
But after an Austin Richie 3-pointer with 4:51 to go, the Broncos finally were able to mount an 8-1 run to take a 51-49 lead with 3 minutes to go. That lead would be short lived as the Armsteads would score all of the Huskie points the rest of the way, bringing NIU back from a 2-point, then 4-point deficit to tie the game up at 55-55 with 46 seconds left.
After Steve Hawkins called timeout, Connar Tava was finally able to take part in the game with his lone field goal, going into the paint with a spin move lay-up on Threloff to give the Broncos a 57-56 lead. Aaric would then draw a foul on Brown, but would hit 1-of-2 free-throws, and the ensuing lack of pressure wasted precious time off the clock before Travon Baker was finally able to foul Richie.
With Richie hitting both free-throws, Mark Montgomery put the ball in Aaric Armstead's hands, but an apparent push-off was called against brother Aaron, resulting in a costly turnover with just 10.6 seconds left. A livid Montgomery would argue with head official Glenn Mayborg, and would get called for a technical foul. The ensuing Whittington free-throws iced the game, and led to the 61-56 final.
Montgomery was reserved after the game, saying, "I can't really say what I want to say, but both teams played hard tonight. . .I just wish we had one more possession to give us the lead or force overtime."
With the win, Western Michigan now moves back into first place in the MAC with Buffalo's loss to Akron. The Broncos are currently tied with Toledo on top of the MAC, and the two teams split their season series, but Western Michigan owns a 7-2 divisional record versus the Rockets' 6-3 record against the West. WMU can clinch the 1-seed in the MAC Tournament, and their first MAC Regular Season Title since the 2003-04 season, Steve Hawkins' first season in Kalamazoo.
Hawkins, however, is ready for a tough test in rival Central Michigan coming up on Friday, noting how they've hung tough with teams and how their sharp-shooting big-men cause problems for his more "traditional" team. The game also carries in-state rivalry implications, as the Broncos can retain the Michigan MAC Trophy. The retainment would be the 2nd time in the trophy's history that it was retained by a team, as WMU kept the trophy after all three MAC schools went 2-2 against one another.
Western Michigan has won the trophy an astounding 6 times already, but with a loss, Eastern Michigan could take home their first basketball title, and become the third school to win both the football and basketball trophies in one athletic season, matching the 2005-06 Western Michigan seasons and the 2009-10 Central Michigan teams.
Meanwhile, NIU returns home on Saturday to take on Ball State, and with a win, could possibly earn one of the last home games in the first round of the MAC tournament. A loss would assure them of a road game at either Kent State or Miami.