A few times over the course of Monday night's game, the student section at Eastern Michigan's Convocation Center sat down as a group and acted as if they were riding a rollercoaster. In unison they waved their arms over their heads, to the left, then to the right, then straight up, and SCREAMED. If you squinted hard enough you could imagine that they were, in fact, riding a rollercoaster - and rather enjoying themselves.
This of course led me to thinking about the ways that a basketball season below the red line can feel like a rollercoaster ride. The season ascends slowly with non-conference games, builds and gains speed during conference play, and becomes a twisting downhill thrill ride this time of year with tournaments across the country. This particular game opened MAC Tournament play, and after forty minutes one team's season-long ride would be over.
2011-12 has been a satisfactory, if not stellar, season for the Eagles of Eastern Michigan University. Their winning record in conference play, 9-7, was the best in over a decade. They won the MAC West Division, a first in program history, and an accomplishment made all the more impressive since they were picked to finish last in the division in a pre-season media poll. Also their first year head coach, Rob Murphy, was named MAC Coach of the Year.
Still, they had a losing overall record on the season, and their division win was largely due to the lopsidedness of the MAC - that 9-7 conference record may have won the Western Division, but it would have landed them in a tie for fifth place out of seven teams in the Eastern Division.
Thus, despite the division title, the Eagles failed to receive an automatic trip to Cleveland and one of the four byes in the first round of the MAC Conference Tournament, instead receiving the next best thing - a home game against cellar dwelling Northern Illinois. The Huskies are breaking in their own first year head coach, Mark Montgomery, and they entered the game having won just four games all season (three in conference). EMU had won the two previous encounters between these teams by scores of 47-40 and 48-45, so a close, low-scoring game seemed to be in the offing.
Due to the travails of parenting (my companion for this game was my eight month old son), the getting-to-the-game process took longer than would have been ideal, and we arrived with just under 12 minutes to play in the first half. I needn't have worried about missing any action though, as those first eight minutes of basketball had yielded a scoreline of NIU 5, EMU 1. It seemed that my prediction of a low scoring game was right...
Throughout the first half, EMU looked sluggish. I suppose that's what you'd expect from a team playing a Monday night game in a mostly empty building against an opponent they had beaten twice before. They weren't crisp on offense, often making just a few slow passes and cuts before shooting a contested three pointer early in the shot clock. Compounding matters, some sloppy transition defense was leading to easy points for NIU. Still, the Huskies looked equally inept against EMU's 2-3 zone in the half court game, so neither team did much to light up the scoreboard.
The halftime break couldn't come soon enough for Coach Murphy and his team. By the time it arrived, they trailed 18-11, and big offensive improvement was needed in the second half to avoid the upset and advance to Cleveland.
The story of the second half would be the superhoop. On their first possession Eastern's Derek Thompson hit a three pointer, their first of the night after going 0-9 from distance in the first half. They would make three of four triples to start the second half, and with those shots falling the scoreline began to tighten.
Sensing their chances improving, the Eagles also began playing tighter perimeter defense, culminating in guard Darrell Lampley forcing NIU's Stian Berg to pick up his dribble near half court and use a timeout. Berg's frustration boiled over for a moment, and after the whistle he gave Lampley a push in the chest. Following a brief discussion amongst themselves, the referees assessed technical fouls on both players (the reason for Lampley's was unclear... maybe something he said?). The student section came alive, the momentum had shifted, and it was no surprise when EMU took their first lead of the game shortly thereafter at 31-29 with just under 12 minutes to play.
It would be the only lead of the night for the Eagles, however. NIU responded by scoring the next eight straight points, including superhoops by Berg and Antone Christian. Over an eight minute period beginning with 10:15 to play, the Huskies made five baskets - all of them three pointers. It was just enough to keep Eastern at bay. On their final possession, a desperation 30-foot buzzer beater by center Jamell Harris hit rim, backboard, rim again, and then fell to the floor, condemning the Eagles to a 55-52 loss and giving the Huskies another chance to suit up this season.
NIU attempted 21 three pointers for the game, over half of their 39 field goal attempts, and made nine of them for a 43% success rate. Critically, they made six of their last eight to close out the win. For the season they shot just 32% from deep (ranking them 272nd in the country), leaving Eagles fans to wonder why they were so unlucky to see their season end due to good shooting by a bad shooting team.
Still, you got the impression filing out of the Convocation Center that folks weren't too broken up about the night's result. Laughter and smiles filled the concourse. The season had turned out better than they expected, and the future is bright under Coach Murphy. This year's spin on the rollercoaster has come to a stop in Ypsilanti - and it ended as they always do, with a loss - but wasn't it worth the cost of the ticket to ride?
NORTHERN ILLINOIS 5-25 (3-13) -- A. Bolin 4-7 2-2 13; T. Nixon 5-8 3-6 14; M. Ford 3-7 0-0 6; S. Berg 2-5 2-2 8; K. Gray 1-1 0-0 2; A. Christian 1-4 0-0 3; A. Nader 1-4 0-1 2; T. Storm 2-2 0-0 6; K. Gray 0-1 1-2 1. Totals 19-39 8-13 55. EASTERN MICHIGAN 14-18 (9-7) -- A. Green 1-6 2-2 4; J. Harris 5-7 3-5 13; D. Lampley 3-12 6-8 13; D. Thompson 4-11 0-0 12; J. Sims 2-5 2-3 7; Q. Dailey 0-2 0-0 0; M. Balkema 1-3 0-0 2; K. Janton 0-0 1-2 1; A. Harper 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 16-47 14-20 52.
Three-point goals: NIU 9-21 (T. Storm 2-2; A. Christian 1-4; T. Nixon 1-3; A. Bolin 3-4; S. Berg 2-5; M. Ford 0-1; A. Nader 0-2), EMU 6-23 (D. Lampley 1-5; A. Green 0-3; J. Sims 1-3; Q. Dailey 0-1; J. Harris 0-1; A. Harper 0-1; D. Thompson 4-9); Rebounds: NIU 24 (T. Nixon 5), EMU 26 (J. Harris 8); Assists: NIU 16 (M. Ford 7), EMU 13 (D. Lampley 6); Total Fouls -- NIU 17, EMU 13; Fouled Out: NIU-None; EMU-A. Green.