Going dancing: Last-second win in MAC final sends EMU women's basketball team to NCAA Tournament
The Eagles are headed to the Big Dance.
Paige Redditt’s last-second basket gave the Eastern Michigan women’s basketball team a 72-71 win over Central Michigan in the MAC Tournament championship game on Saturday, earning the second trip to the NCAA Tournament in program history.
"I think I jumped before it went in," the senior center said. "It was surreal. You can't imagine the feeling that I had in that moment."
The Eagles trailed 71-70 in the final seconds when MAC Player of the Year Tavelyn James turned the ball over, forcing Eastern Michigan to foul CMU to get the ball back.
When the Chippewas’ Jessica Green missed the front end of a one-and-one trip to the line with 9 seconds remaining, EMU sophomore Natachia Watkins grabbed the rebound, turned quickly up-court and found Redditt near the basket with a half-court pass.
Redditt’s shot rolled over the front of the rim with 1.5 seconds left on the clock, marking the 19th lead change during the tightly contested title game at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.
It also earned the second MAC Tournament title and NCAA Tournament automatic bid in school history, and the first since 2004.
The Chippewas couldn't get off a final shot and Eastern Michigan's players piled on Redditt at mid-court in celebration.
It was a sweet finale for the second-seeded Eagles (23-8), who had lost to Bowling Green in last year's final.
"What a beautiful ending, what a beautiful finish," EMU coach AnnMarie Gilbert said. "This was our moment."
One that Redditt never doubted would happen.
“Paige Redditt came over to me with 35 seconds left - we were down - and she said, ‘Coach, no matter what that score reflects, we got this,’” Gilbert said in a post-game press conference. “For her to be the one to make the basket at the end of the day was just amazing.”
Redditt also scored the game-winning basket in Eastern Michigan's 59-57 semifinal win against Toledo on Friday.
“It’s been two hard-fought days, but we pulled it through,” James said in a post-game interview while her teammates cut down the nets at Quicken Loans Arena.
Watkins, playing 10 miles from her hometown of South Euclid, Ohio, scored a game-high 25 points on 11-of-16 shooting.
James, who moved into second place on the MAC’s all-time scoring list during the game, added 23 points while Redditt finished with 18 points.
Watkins, James, Redditt and sophomore point guard Desyree Thomas (10 assists) each played the entire 40-minute game.
The MAC changed its tournament setup this season to protect its top teams. It almost didn’t happen, thanks to a young Central Michigan team led by former Michigan coach Sue Guevara.
The Chippewas, who knocked off No. 1 seed Bowling Green in a semifinal on Friday, were playing their fourth game in as many days.
Still, they were able to push No. 2 seed EMU - which received a double-bye straight into the tournament semifinals - to the brink behind 20 points from sophomore Taylor Johnson and 16 apiece from freshmen Green and Crystal Bradford.
CMU (20-15) took its first lead of the second half, 67-65, on a Johnson 3-pointer with 4:39 left to play. Watkins split a pair of free throws with 3:22 remaining to play to put EMU (23-8) back ahead, 68-67.
Neither team scored on their next two possessions before a layup by Green, a Belleville High School graduate, put CMU up 69-68 with 1:36 left to play.
Two free throws by James and a post basket by Bradford changed the lead twice more heading into the game’s closing seconds.
The Chippewas had won seven straight games, a streak that included a 61-46 win over Eastern Michigan in both teams’ final regular season game.
“We knew that they shouldn’t have beat us like that last time, Redditt said. “We didn’t play like we should have, we didn’t play like we play. So we knew we had to come out a totally different team today to get that win.”
The Eagles will learn their NCAA Tournament destination and opponent on Monday night. Eastern Michigan’s only previous appearance was in 2004, when the No. 14-seeded Eagles lost 58-56 to No. 3 Boston College in a first-round game.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.