The Eastern Michigan University men’s basketball team is off to Cleveland to play No. 3 seed Akron, after defeating Northern Illinois University, 65-59, Sunday at the Convocation Center in the first round of the Mid-American Conference Tournament.
“Number one, hats off to Northern Illinois,” EMU coach Charles Ramsey said. “They came out with a great deal of fire, passion, the kids had intensity.”
NIU (10-20) got out to an early 17-8 lead behind strong play from center Sean Kowal and guard Xavier Silas. Kowal had eight first-half points with Silas besting him, scoring 10.
“We didn’t match it early,” Ramsey said of the Huskies’ intensity. “And, it was basically, either we’ve got to match their intensity or we’re going to get ran out of our own gym.”
Scoring in the first half was hard to come by for EMU (17-14), as it shot 25 percent (5-for-20) in the first half and went through a 9:47 stretch where it didn’t score a field goal.
Luckily for the Eagles they were able to get to the free-throw line, as 11 of Eastern’s 23 first-half points came via foul shots. EMU ended shooting 25-for-41 from the line (61 percent).
“We just, for whatever reason as of late, not been shooting them well,” Ramsey said. “But, we’re getting there a lot. So, that’s half the battle. As long as we’re getting there at that clip, I’ll live with that.”
Eastern headed into the locker room at the half losing, 29-23, and it seemed the team was still feeling the effects of its 56-55 loss to Central Michigan on Thursday.
“Oh, big time,” Ramsey said. “Let me tell you something, Thursday night was the first time I’ve ever had to deal with a team, in the biggest game of my coaching career and the biggest game of their careers, to where they were just totally distraught. There wasn’t a dry eye or a clear eye in the locker room. To lose a division championship – they had a lot on the line. The flip side is, you knew it meant something to them.”
EMU senior guard Carlos Medlock ended the first half with one point and admitted to being affected by the proverbial “hangover.”
“I was kind of thinking about that, too,” he said. “But, you know, I had to let it go.”
Ramsey could sense as much from the rest of his team and decided to speak up in the locker room.
“I asked them about it at halftime,” he said. “[I said] ‘Northern doesn’t care about you guys losing the other night, Northern is trying to get to Cleveland. So, either you guys wake up, or we’re going to be sitting here in Ypsilanti,’ and so, they snapped out of it.”
“Kids buckled down. We kind of got settled and slowly got back into it.”
After Kowal (15) made a layup and Silas (20) made an open 3-pointer to start the second half for NIU, Eastern steadily picked up its scoring and got back in the game.
Quintin Dailey and Jay Higgins each made three’s on consecutive possessions after Kowal and Silas’ makes, with Dobbins making a tip-in on a fast break shortly after, and Bowdry following that up with a layup to make it, 34-33, NIU.
Bowdry ended the game with 19 points and 12 rebounds.
Northern Illinois countered EMU’s surge with one of its own, increasing its lead, 45-36, on a Ante Dzepina jumper with 12:40 left.
But, Medlock and Justin Dobbins seemed determined in the second half, as they picked up their scoring with the game clock winding down.
Dobbins scored 11 of his 13 in the second half.
Medlock took off his protective face mask and became more assertive, scoring 10 in the second.
“I was just taking whatever they were giving me,” he said. “The first half, I probably wasn’t looking for more shots and was trying to get everybody involved, but I just took what they had and they got me open shots and I just knocked them down. I just kept penetrating. I didn’t do much of that the first half, and I wanted to keep attacking in the second half.”
Their hard work paid off with 5:45 left when Medlock tied the game at 54 with a jumper. Dobbins was fouled on EMU’s next possession and made 1-of-2 to put Eastern ahead, 55-54.
The Eagles led from that point until the final buzzer.
“We’re 1-0,” Ramsey said. “We’ve done something now that hasn’t been done in a long, long time around here: We’re winning tournament games. That’s a credit to the kids and I think where the program is coming, in that regard.”
Added Medlock: “It feels great. Now, it’s kind of meaningful. We got ourselves there on our own by winning the first game, so it feels good going back. I hope we take care of business when we get there.”
Up next for EMU is Akron (22-9) in Cleveland.
The Eagles’ last contest against the Zips in January resulted in a 62-59 victory. Tipoff is 2 p.m. Thursday at the Quicken Loans Arena.
“We’re playing a team that we’ve had success against in Akron, we’re going in rested. We’re going to be as fully rested as Akron come Thursday. I feel pretty good we’re coming off a W, whereas they’re sitting and waiting.
“I think the kids will play that back in their minds. The one thing we have going in – Akron knows that we beat them, and we know we beat them.”
But does the previous win over Akron mean increased confidence for the Eagles?
“Yea, a little bit,” Medlock said. “But, they’re a good team. We’ve got to play better than we did the first time we played them. I’m not going to say we have to be perfect, but we’ve got to get the job done.”