Hustle Belt's MAC Women's Basketball Mid-Season Awards

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

We're reached the dividing line between non-conference and conference play for each of the 12 MAC schools, so there's no better time to break out some "halfway" superlatives! Who gets the honors, and what will the next two months bring?

The Mid-American Conference will begin its schedule of women's basketball conference games tomorrow (Sat., Jan. 4th), and all non-conference games have been completed. As a result, we've decided to honor the MAC's very best with some mid-season awards (that we'll inevitably re-visit in March after the conference tournament).

This is a look at where we are, where we've been, and where we're going.

A team of Hustle Belt experts has scrutinized and analyzed the numbers, and our esteemed voting panel has taken recommendations and has chosen truly deserving honorees. Things will certainly change over the next two months, as you can never really know what to expect in the MAC, but it's been a special season so far. We're sure you'll agree.

Mid-American Conference Mid-Season Player of the Year
Crystal Bradford, Central Michigan Chippewas

The defending MAC Tournament MVP and All-MAC First Team selection after the 2012-2013 season is having an even better year as a junior, if that's possible. Against one of the most difficult non-conference schedules a mid-major could possibly face, Bradford averaged 20.3 points, 10.4 rebounds and 3 assists per game in the first 11 games of her season. She already has 29 steals and ten blocks. Her 87 field goals should allow her to threaten the CMU record for made field goals that she set just last year, and she'll also have a chance to surpass her career highs for points and rebounds in a season.

Bradford is third in the MAC in points per game, first in rebounds, fourth in steals and fifth in blocked shots. She also ranks in the top 15 in assists per game. Her heroics weren't quite enough against an often brutal non-conference schedule, but she ought to be dominant in her return to play against MAC teams.

Mid-American Conference Mid-Season Defensive Player of the Year
Christa Baccas, Buffalo Bulls

The Bulls are one of the best defensive teams in the MAC, and Baccas is a primary reason why. She's second in the MAC with 26 blocks, as she seeks to surpass her astounding total of 88 from a year ago. She's also fourth in the MAC with 6.2 defensive rebounds per game. Baccas is a takeaway artist, as well, and she is among the league's leaders with 19 steals in 11 games. Buffalo is allowing just under 67 points per game, and that defensive effort has helped key their 7-4 start.

Mid-American Conference Mid-Season Freshman of the Year
Jill Morrison, Ball State Cardinals

The MAC has several emerging freshmen stars this season, but Morrison has been perhaps the most consistent of them all. In 11 games, Morrison is averaging 27.5 minutes and 10.9 points per game. She's been deadly accurate from the free throw line, as she's made 34 of 38 attempts, and she's the Cardinal leader in made three-pointers with 24.

She started the season slowly in games against Purdue, Pittsburgh and Evansville, as she scored just 13 points in those games combined. However, she got into a groove after that and scored in double-figures in each of her next four games. Against Western Kentucky, Morrison scored a career-best 26 points and was 6-for-8 from long range. Two games later, she scored 17 points and had three rebounds against Louisville, a top-ten team. She had 14 points in her most recent game, a win at IPFW.

Morrison is steadily improving, and her knack for making three-pointers and free throws will help the Cardinals immensely during conference play.

Mid-American Conference Mid-Season Coach of the Year
Tory Verdi, Eastern Michigan Eagles

Verdi took over in 2012 for a team that had just won the MAC Tournament and played in the NCAA Tournament. His first team saw many key departures, and the Eagles quickly sank to an 8-22 record. In 2013, the transformation of his roster has continued, as three freshmen are among the team's most key contributors. In fact, two newcomers (Cha Sweeney and Janay Morton) are averaging over 25 minutes per game. Despite that youth and inexperience, Verdi guided the Eagles to a 10-1 non-conference record. The Eagles are confident and could emerge as a real threat to Central Michigan and Toledo in the MAC West.

Mid-American Conference Mid-Season Team of the Year
Bowling Green Falcons

The Falcons have been perched at (or near) the top of the MAC for the last decade, and the 2013-14 season has not been any different. Bowling Green played a challenging non-conference schedule that included a mid-major power and three Big Ten teams, but they emerged with a 10-2 record. The Falcons opened the season with a neutral site win over Michigan by 11 points. Less than three weeks later, BGSU played at Ohio State and walked away with a 12-point win.

The Falcons also own wins at Butler and at Iona. In the case of Iona, the Gaels have lost only one other game (at St. John's) and currently own an eight-game winning streak. Even in their losses, they were very competitive. Against Marist, BGSU led at one point by eight and kept the game within single digits until the final four minutes of a 74-60 loss. Against #18 Purdue, BGSU led in the first half, went to halftime tied, and never trailed by more than 11 in a 57-48 loss.

Bowling Green has a strong presence on the inside and couples that with dangerous long-range shooters. There's no reason to think they won't be at the top of the standings again when March rolls around.

Mid-American Conference Mid-Season Game of the Year
Central Michigan Storms Back to Beat Dayton

High-scoring game? Check. Back-and-forth game? Check. Stirring comeback? Check. Last-second game-winner? Check. Well, can you think of anything else you want out of a game? If you can, you must be one difficult person to please. This was pure fun, and the fast-paced action never seemed to stop. The teams combined for 155 shots, or an average of almost four shots per minute. Central Michigan took 84 shots by themselves, and 34 of those attempts were from long range. The score was 46-40 at halftime, and somehow the two teams combined for an even higher-scoring second half.

Dayton led for much of the first ten minutes, but at the midway point of the first half, Crystal Bradford sank a three to give CMU a 23-21 lead. CMU held the lead for the rest of the first half and increased it to as much by 11, but Dayton scored the final four points of the half to trail by just six (46-40) at halftime.

The Flyers reclaimed the lead with three minutes gone in the second half and built on it from there. They were able to increase it to as much as nine points, but Central Michigan made timely shots to keep themselves in the game. A Taylor Johnson layup capped a 10-3 CMU run and cut the Dayton lead to two with just 54 seconds left, but Dayton pumped the lead back up to six thanks to a layup of their own and then two free throws with 27 seconds left.

Six seconds later, Bradford nailed another three to cut the Flyers' lead in half. Dayton's Amber Deane was fouled on the next possession, but she missed two free throws and Johnson got the rebound. Johnson then made another key three-pointer to tie the game with seven seconds left. On the inbound pass after a timeout, Dayton threw an errant pass that Johnson stole. Johnson got the ball to Bradford, who hit another three-pointer, this time with less than one second on the clock. CMU won 94-91.

Looking back now, it's hard to understate the importance of the win. CMU ended the non-conference season with a 4-8 record, and this was easily their best win. Their only other victories came against Xavier, Massachusetts and Prairie View.

Mid-American Conference Mid-Season Upset of the Year
Bowling Green Defeats Ohio State in Columbus

It's one thing to beat a Big Ten team at a neutral site when it's the first game of the season and the Big Ten team had lost basically everything from the previous year (Michigan). It's entirely different to storm into a Big Ten arena against a power team and emerge with a double-digit victory. However, that's exactly what Bowling Green did.

Of course, the astonishing thing isn't so much that BGSU won; it's how they did it. Ohio State took a quick 2-0 lead in the first minute, but Erica Donovan sank a three just seconds later to give BGSU a 3-2 lead. The Falcons would never relinquish that edge. The lead floated between three and seven points for the remainder of the half, and Bowling Green took a 25-21 lead to halftime. The second half was similar until just before the midway point, when the Falcons took an 11 point lead on a basket by Jill Stein. OSU would never get closer than eight points after that.

That's been a BGSU thing all season -- once they get a lead, it's almost impossible to for the opponent to take it back.

Mid-American Conference Mid-Season Play of the Year
Crystal Bradford Sinks Dayton with Buzzer-Beating Three

What, you thought it would be something else? Game-winning shots in tournament-like atmospheres are what any good college basketball fan lives for.

Enjoy!

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