Eastern Michigan basketball team buckles down, advances to MAC Tournament quarterfinals in Cleveland
The deficit was in double digits, the defense was non-existent, and the lingering effects of a disappointing loss four days earlier had the Eastern Michigan basketball team's season hanging on the brink of disaster.
Just like that, a team on the cusp of winning a Mid-American Conference West Division title only a few days earlier was getting run out of its own gym.
But once the Eagles began to turn things around - first on defense and then in who their offense was run through - the momentum began to shift, blossoming into a 65-59 victory over Northern Illinois on Sunday at the Convocation Center that punched Eastern Michigan's MAC Tournament ticket to Cleveland.
Although the Eagles failed to master virtually every statistical category from rebounding to free-throw shooting, a team that managed just five first-half field goals advanced to Thursday's quarterfinals against Akron.
"I don't care what the numbers say," Eastern Michigan coach Charles Ramsey said. "We got our butts kicked on the glass, but our turnover numbers were low and we did what we had to do to get a win and at this time of the year, that's all that you care about."
But the steps getting a first-round tournament victory were anything but smooth in the early going. After failing to clinch a share of a division championship in a one-point loss to Central Michigan on Thursday, Eastern's initial efforts looked anything like a team that planned to continue its season.
The Eagles (17-14) experienced nearly a 10-minute drought without a field goal in the first half when Eastern shot 25 percent (5-of-20) from the field. As dreadful as the offense was, the Eagles allowed Northern Illinois to score at will, falling behind 22-8.
Despite its first-half failings, though, the Eagles trailed by just six at halftime. Ramsey warned his team of trying to do too much too fast, breaking the comeback down into a series of valuable possessions.
"We just had to weather the storm," said forward Brandon Bowdry, who led Eastern with a team-high 19 points. "You just have to contemplate how many minutes are still on the clock and you know you've got time."
With time to work with, though, Ramsey encouraged his team to get its mind right, putting last week's disappointing loss to Central Michigan out of its head once and for all.
"I told the guys at halftime, 'Northern doesn't care what happened Thursday night'," Ramsey said, recounting his halftime speech. "Either you wake up or we'll be sitting in Ypsilanti instead of playing in Cleveland. They snapped out of it. We had to play possession by possession and make some stops at the defensive end. The guys bought into it."
The methodical effort began defensively, contesting shots during a second half when Northern Illinois - which shot 48 percent in the first half - went 8-of-26 shooting in the second.
Once Eastern Michigan's defense improved, scoring became less complicated. The Eagles turned to a steady diet of Bowdry and center Justin Dobbins, who combined for 32 points in the win after going 2-for-11 from the field during the first half.
Carlos Medlock (11 points) and Jay Higgins (10 points) rounded out a balanced scoring attack for Eastern, which got all but 12 points from its starters.
Bowdry tied the game at 48 with a 3-point play with 8:18 remaining. Three minutes later, Dobbins, who chipped in with 13 points, split a pair of free throws, giving the Eagles a 55-54 lead - their first since the early stages of the first half.
From there, the Eagles did just enough offensively while limiting Northern Illinois (10-20) to three field goals over the final 12 minutes, 46 seconds.
"We knew what we had to do today," Dobbins said. "We had to come out and make sure that we get this win to redeem what we lost (against Central Michigan). We knew we had a big game coming up and the game was going to solidify what we did (all season)."
Now with its first tournament step out of the way, the No. 6-seeded Eagles head to Cleveland to face No. 3-seeded Akron on Thursday. The Zips earned a first-round bye but must contend with Eastern Michigan that already has a win over Akron this season and that has the luxury of a tournament win under its belt.
And after shrugging off the disappointment of letting a chance at a division crown slip away, the Eagles still have a chance to find redemption in the conference tournament.
"(Akron) is coming off a loss and we're coming off a win so we have the momentum," Bowdry said. "We just have to go (to Cleveland) and do what we have to do to get a win."
Jeff Arnold covers sports for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or 734-623-2554. Follow him on Twitter @jeffreyparnold.