"We didn't play hard enough."
That was Western Michigan head basketball coach Steve Hawkins on his team's second half performance in their 75-72 victory over Central Michigan on Saturday. The Broncos needed some game heroics down the stretch to down the Chippewas after leading most of the way.
The first half started like many have in MAC play for the Broncos, with a strong first half intensity that led to a huge lead, this time 23 points. Shayne Whittington only played 9 minutes of the half, yet still managed to put up 12 points and 6 rebounds to lead his team. David Brown added an additional 11 points in considerably more time and international freshman Mario Matasovic threw down a pair of dunks, including a monster posterization that energized the crowd en route to a 40-17 lead.
Then Chris Fowler and company showed up.
"Fowler is a tremendous guard," Hawkins said after the game. "He creates for everyone and you have to corral him otherwise he'll drive the lane and kick the ball back out (to the big men)."
The sophomore guard powered his team through the half, helping cut the deficit to 17 while putting up 13 points in the first half, all but keeping Central Michigan somewhat competitive. In the 2nd half, he drove the lane constantly, and with help from Braylon Rayson and Austin Stewart, made life miserable for the Bronco backcourt with a suffocating press.
Meanwhile, Blake Hibbitts and John Simons played huge roles in a zone defense that kept Whittington quiet all half, as the senior big man only managed 2 points and 2 rebounds after his big first half. The two also combined to go 5-8 from deep as they helped bring Central Michigan back slowly, but surely until the Chippewas were able to take their first lead of the game with 2:30 to go.
However, that would be their only lead, as David Brown was able to draw fouls and found Tucker Haymond and Austin Richie for key lay-ups late to extend slim leads to 3 points. He also hit 3 of his 4 free-throws, with his miss the only one the Broncos would see all game as he helped keep the Chippewas away from the lead the rest of the way en route to the victory.
"I knew that we would have our hands full (today)," Central Michigan head coach Keno Davis said after the game. "We didn't respond really well at the start of the game, but we had great effort. To be able to have that attitude (and effort) is something you can't coach."
And while Central Michigan did drop another MAC game to fall to 0-8 in conference play, their last two games against Ohio and Western Michigan, both close losses on the road, show that this team could be on the cusp of some victories in the near future.
Meanwhile, the Western Michigan Broncos have again conceded a lead to a relatively weaker opponent, with this ending in a victory again. Whittington said after the game, "Championship caliber teams don't give up 20-point leads like (today)." And he's right, as this team must prove they can defeat the teams they should by wide margins if they have them in order to be considered a potential dark-horse for the MAC Championship behind Akron, Ohio, and Toledo (in no particular order).
The Broncos will host Ohio, who downed Toledo on Saturday in overtime, on Wednesday night at University Arena. Meanwhile, the Chippewas return home to face a Kent State team that has been reeling as of late, and could use any victory to help right their ship. Tip-offs are scheduled for 7:00 pm.
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