Have you ever gone to sign in to something, and catch a glimpse at the guest list, and see who is also going to be attending or is already there, and you just know you're in for one hell of a night? That's what happened last night when I went to watch my Western Michigan Broncos (8-9) travel to Ypsilanti, Michigan to take on the Eagles of Eastern Michigan (7-10). When I went to sign my name on the will call list I saw the names of several former Bronco players who were on the team the same time I was as a team manager. If it wasn't enough that we were able to all sit together, we all got tickets in the front row behind the visitors' bench! AGAIN! Thanks Coach Kool!!!
I haven't missed this game seven years running now, having grown up in Plymouth, Michigan 20 minutes away (and having been born at the hospital right down the street!). So it has always been a convenient way to get my parents to come see us play and to see my team post-graduation without driving all the way to Kalamazoo. EMU's Convocation center has always had the most awkward of environments. It's a 10,000 seat arena that hardly ever gets above 2,000 spectators, and they're always introducing the team like they were an NBA franchise, with spotlights and an over-hyped announcer when they are mid-major program. But one thing that has changed since the introduction of first-year head coach Rob Murphy (a disciple and assistant coach of Jim Boeheim) is the increase in the number of students. I haven't seen as many students in six combined trips to the convocation center as I did this night.
Going into this game, a story line I sought to keep an eye on was the "revenge" story line behind EMU's starting point guard Austin Harper. My senior year at WMU we recruited and signed Austin to play for the Broncos. But after I graduated he only lasted one season before transferring, and I've only heard rumors as to the circumstances. But regardless, the first time playing your old team, matching up against several other guys you used to practice with, there are undoubtedly a whole slew of emotions that could come out of a game like this for everybody.
The game itself started pretty well for the Broncos. They utilized a very good inside-out game to create open looks from the perimeter. At times I felt it was like a game of "40 passes" when the WMU had the ball (for those not familiar, "40 passes" is a drill teams play in practice where the object is to complete 40 passes with your teammates without a deflection or turnover).
The star of the game was WMU junior forward Nate Hutchenson. The game turned into just the kind of game that suits his style of play where scoring opportunities arise quickly all over the place. Hutchenson exploded for 15 points in the first half taking open shots wherever they became available. There were several instances where PG Mike Douglas would push the ball in transition to find Hutchenson sprinting up the sideline, get him the ball and flash to the hole for a layup. Nate played like HE had earned the nickname "Charlie Hustle!", the exclamation point being earned by the beautiful charge he took in the second half.
But WMU's leads in the game were never safe. Despite the volume passing game, the Broncos had trouble securing the ball. The apparent butter fingers led to a total of 20 turnovers in the in the game for WMU. And coming down the stretch, they never had a lead more than five points at any given time. Flash forward to 59 seconds to go in the game, after a made three-pointer by EMU's J.R. Sims, we have ourselves a tie ball game!
WMU came down the court and tried to get the ball in the paint to back-up center Shayne Wittington (starting PF Flenard Whitfield had fouled out), but a deflection turned the ball into a hot-potato and the Broncos again turned it over. After a time out, a two man game between former Bronco Austin Harper and Antonio Green led to a made 3-pointer by Green with 4.8 seconds to go. After their final time out with the Broncos down three, Mike Douglas rushed the ball down the court and found Nate Hutchenson in the corner for one final buzzer beater attempt...
WHICH HE HIT!
Hutchenson drained the basket to tie the game at the buzzer to force the single most dramatic word in all of sports: overtime!
But alas, the problems with the Broncos' securing the ball, defending EMU's quickness and shoddy officiating continued to plague the game in the overtime period, and WMU came up short, 62-59. It is clear that EMU head coach Rob Murphy is looking to change the culture on EMU's team and to breathe new life into a program that's been lackluster for the better part of the past 15 years. But all is not lost for WMU; turnovers aside, the Broncos played their best game as a team as I have seen them play all season. They appear to be hitting their stride, playing with cohesion, moving the ball well and looking to score with confidence. Road games in mid-major conferences are always tougher to win than one would think, and hopefully this is only a minor setback for the Broncos in what is always a long winter in conference play.
at EASTERN MICHIGAN 62, WESTERN MICHIGAN 59 01/18/2012
WESTERN MICHIGAN 8-10 (2-2) -- T. McConnell 6-12 2-2 15; D. Ward 2-9 2-4 6; M. Douglas 1-2 3-4 5; N. Hutcheson 6-13 6-7 21; M. Stainbrook 5-9 2-3 12; F. Whitfield 3-4 1-3 7; A. Richie 1-6 1-2 4; S. Whittington 2-2 0-0 4; M. Conteh 0-0 0-0 0; H. Hoerdemann 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 20-46 15-23 59. EASTERN MICHIGAN 8-10 (3-1) -- J. Harris 3-6 3-6 9; D. Riley 3-9 2-3 8; Q. Dailey 3-6 0-0 9; A. Harper 1-4 1-4 3; A. Green 3-9 3-4 11; J. Sims 3-7 3-3 10; D. Lampley 2-8 2-2 7; A. Strickland 1-2 0-0 2; K. Janton 0-0 0-0 0; D. Thompson 1-2 0-0 3. Totals 20-53 14-22 62.
Three-point goals: WMU 4-19 (D. Ward 0-4; N. Hutcheson 3-8; H. Hoerdemann 0-1; A. Richie 1-6), EMU 8-17 (D. Lampley 1-3; A. Green 2-4; J. Sims 1-3; Q. Dailey 3-3; A. Harper 0-2; D. Thompson 1-2); Rebounds: WMU 27 (M. Stainbrook 7), EMU 26 (J. Harris 10); Assists: WMU 16 (M. Douglas 8), EMU 13 (A. Harper 7); Total Fouls -- WMU 21, EMU 19; Fouled Out: WMU-F. Whitfield; EMU-D. Riley.