The Miami RedHawks used a decisive 14-2 second half run and pressure defense that forced 12 steals to win their MAC opener against Central Michigan, 77-70.
Senior forward Will Felder, who ranked #9 in Hustle Belt's preseason ranking of the MAC's top 25 players, was Miami's most important player down the stretch. Felder scored 15 and collected 8 rebounds, and Central Michigan had no answer for his physical inside presence throughout the second half. The RedHawks were led in scoring by guards Geovonie McKnight and Will Sullivan, who added 17 each on 13 for 21 combined shooting from the floor. Jaryd Eustace added 13 points off the bench.
Chris Fowler, the MAC's 3rd leading scorer with over 16 points per game and shooting an amazing 60% from the field, was the Chippewas' leading scorer with 22 points. Fowler also came in 3rd in the league with 5.2 assists per game, and added 7 assists tonight. Blake Hibbitts added 17 points, and John Simons scored 10 and collected 9 rebounds.
Miami's guard combination of Quinten Rollins and McKnight came in 2nd and 4th in the MAC in steals. Rollins collected a staggering 7 steals in this game, forcing the Chippewas - #1 in the MAC in turnover margin entering the night - to a -3 turnover margin.
Miami now leads the all-time series with Central Michigan 49-18, and has won the last 5 meetings. CMU has not beaten Miami since a 2-point victory in the 2008-09 season. The two teams will meet again just two weeks from tonight
Central Michigan opened the scoring with an Austin Stewart three pointer, but Miami responded with 9 consecutive points while holding the Chippewas scoreless for over 5 minutes. Both teams heated up from the floor trading baskets, when back-to-back baskets from Felder gave the RedHawks their largest first half lead, 21-13, with 10:15 to play.
The Chippewas climbed back into the game repeatedly during the first half, forcing turnovers and crashing the offensive glass for second shot opportunities. Chris Fowler had tallied 10 points and 3 assists by the end of the first half, and Central Michigan went to the locker room leading 27-26.
The game remained tight early in the second half with the Chippewas leading 36-33. Miami then embarked on the decisive 14-2 run, using scoring by 5 different players over that time. The run concluded with back-to-back baskets by Felder, the second drawing a foul and resulting in an old-fashioned 3-point play.
While the Chippewas were never able to retake the lead, they made several runs back at the RedHawks, keyed by Fowler's aggressive drives and some timely shooting from Hibbitts. Central Michigan got a basket by Rayshawn Simmons and a steal on the inbounds pass resulting in a layup by Fowler to close to 69-66. On the next possession, a mad scramble for a loose ball resulted in a tip forward to streaking Geovonie McKnight. McKnight missed the layup but was intentionally fouled. The Chippewas would not get that close to a game-tying chance again.
Central Michigan came in last in the MAC in blocked shots, averaging only 1.6 per game, and only blocked 1 shot in this game. This lack of an inside defensive presence may prove problematic against many of the MAC's tougher front courts.
Miami lost its final 6 regular season road games in the MAC last year, though that streak followed a win here in McGuirk arena. The RedHawks did pull a first round MAC tournament upset on the road, beating Bowling Green before losing to Eastern Michigan in Cleveland.
The Chippewas struggled to a 4-12 finish in the MAC in 2012-13, but closed the league season showing remarkable improvement. They won 2 of their last 5 league games, but the last 3 losses were tight - by 5 to Ball State, 3 to Western Michigan, and 2 (in overtime) to Buffalo in the MAC tournament.
These two teams resume league play on Saturday, when Miami goes home to host Western Michigan. Despite Miami's well-publicized roster instability, the team has now won 5 of its last 8 games, and is playing the kind of pressure defense emphasized by head coach John Cooper. For the Chippewas, this disappointing defensive performance recalls the team's struggles of 2012-13, and they will need to regroup quickly. Three of their next 4 games are on the road, and it won't be easy, beginning with a Saturday evening date in Toledo.