Steve Hawkins had more the look of relief, not joy, on Friday night. He had just gotten up from his radio interview with Robin Hook, and before that, had seen one of the best halves of basketball by any Western Michigan team ever en route to the Broncos' clinch of the MAC Regular Season Championship, a title they'll share with Toledo.
When asked about how he felt about winning the title, the second of his 11-year tenure at Western Michigan, Hawkins was not shy about how he felt.
"This is great for the kids...it doesn't mean a lot to me personally, but it means a lot to me to give it to these kids. I've coached for years and been a part of championships before, so for somebody like Shayne [Whittington] to get it is tremendous. They're all fun, they're all special, but it doesn't mean much to me. It's great for the kids and the program."
And for Hawkins, this might be his best coaching job yet. Western Michigan was not one of the five teams to receive a vote to win their division, let alone conference, and barely finished above Eastern Michigan for 2nd place in the pre-season polls. Yet, the Broncos overcame losing Darius Paul in the off-season, starting freshman Tucker Haymond most of the year, and an unproductive bench (at least from a scoring standpoint) to sit atop the MAC heading into the MAC Championship Tournament in Cleveland.
And while Hawkins stood on the court and fielded questions from the Western Michigan media, his players streamed out of the hallway leading to the locker room one-by-one, each with their own extreme overjoyed facial expressions and being greeted by family members (even Haymond, who hails from Seattle).
The players began to take pictures with each other and with family, and even got to hold the Michigan MAC Trophy, finally back in their physical possession after being safe-kept by Central Michigan last season (despite WMU's winning of the trophy).
After Hawkins finished, the senior big man Whittington stepped up, and gave hugs all around before fielding questions, clearly happiest of all to have won the elusive trophy.
"This means the world to me. It's my last year and [David] Brown's last year. It's an emotional time. A.J. Avery hugged me in the locker room after the game, and I just started bawling. It's that great."
Whittington, who began his collegiate career buried on the depth chart behind players like Matt Stainbrook and Donald Lawson, also had the opportunity to play with the Broncos' all-time leading scorer David Kool. Kool, a two-time MAC Player of the Year, never won a MAC Regular Season title let alone the MAC Championship, so Whittington knows how special this team is.
"Right after we beat Akron, it hit us, and we knew we had to buckle down. We're just so special because of our coach-ability. Other teams (I've played on) had a lot more talent, and we have a lot of talent on this team, but we're engaged in practice a lot, and that really speaks to these (underclassmen)."
Whittington finished his final regular season game of his college career with a huge game. He only finished with 14 points (tied for third on his team on the night) and 6 rebounds (second on the team), but his size and low-post presence caused problems for the Central Michigan press and half-court defense.
He also got a lot of help from Haymond, who was all over the court grabbing 50-50 balls and knocking rebounds back to his teammates. He finished with 14 points and 7 rebounds, but his effort was felt much more than the stat sheet could show. His 8 first half points helped keep the Broncos relatively close, with Brown also helping keep Western Michigan in the game, despite being out played to a 38-33 deficit.
Brown had a big second half, going 3-for-3 from beyond the arch and adding a pair of assists, beating the shot clock twice on jaw-dropping shots en route to a game-high 17 points. Also a senior, he was overjoyed, but had a more business-as-usual tone, knowing there is still Cleveland ahead.
"This has been about hard work since the summer. It's that strength and will to win that has gotten us here. There's just so many things that make this team special. We said at the half, 'settle down, this isn't going to win us a championship,' so we re-grouped, and came out to play."
Western Michigan now has the 1-seed locked up, and will face either 4-seed Akron, or the winner of the 5/8/9/12 "regional" in the MAC Tournament (led by Ohio). Their 21-9, 14-4 record is one of the best in program history, and they have won at Ohio, Miami, and Kent State for the first time in years en route to this title. They also defeated Akron and Toledo at home, both of the pre-season MAC favorites.