Eastern Michigan University men’s basketball coach Rob Murphy was direct after his team’s 45-44 win over Northern Illinois University in the opening round of the Mid-American Conference tournament on Monday.
“Tough, gritty game tonight,” Murphy said.
Murphy may have understated things a little.
Up by 10 points with 7:38 minutes to go in the second half, the Eagles almost let the win slip away, but a key three-pointer from freshman guard Jalen Ross at the 39 second mark and a pivotal block by redshirt junior forward Glenn Bryant with 2.9 seconds remaining sealed the victory for EMU.
Junior center Da’Shonte Riley had a huge game for the Eagles (15-17, 7-9 MAC). He scored a career-high 13 points in a season-high 36 minutes for EMU, and 11 of those points came in the first half alone. Riley was a perfect 5-of-5 from the floor and 3-of-7 from the free throw line. His 11 rebounds sealed up his first career double-double. Riley also added four blocks.
“The game of Da’Shonte Riley getting offensive rebound putbacks, making shots, altering, blocking shots … he was the difference maker today,” Murphy said. “Moving forward, he’ll continue to be the difference maker if he continues to play this way.”
Bryant added 10 points for EMU on 4-of-10 shooting and 2-of-3 from the free throw line.
No Huskies (5-25, 3-13 MAC) scored in double digits. Two players tied for the lead in scoring with nine points each: Aksel Bolin and J.J. Cravatta.
Both teams went back and forth for the majority of the first half. The score was tied once, and the only time EMU trailed was at the 18:13 mark when NIU was ahead 3-2.
The Eagles took Riley’s strong effort and added in eight points from senior guard Derek Thompson on a perfect 3-of-3 from the floor, including 2-of-2 from three-point range, as well as five points from redshirt junior guard J.R. Sims on a perfect 2-of-2 from the floor, including 1-of-1 from three-point range, and turned it into a 28-21 lead at halftime.
“I thought we did a good job [in the first half] of shooting the ball when we had open looks,” Murphy said.
The Eagles began the second half where they ended the first. Going ahead by double digits two separate times and leading by as much as 11 points (40-29 with 8:07 to go), EMU was very much in control for the majority of the half.
With 5:02 left, NIU began a comeback, which nearly ended with an EMU loss. On baskets from Cravatta (three-pointer) and Bolin (layup and free throw), the Huskies brought the game to within one point. A three-pointer from Travon Baker with 2:08 to go finished the transition from a seven-point deficit into a two-point lead for NIU.
“We had a chance to close out the game at about the five minute mark [of the second half],” Murphy said. “J.R. Sims missed a wide open three, Jalen Ross came down and missed the front end of a one-and-one, Glenn Bryant missed the front end of a one-and-one, and then Da’Shonte Riley missed the front end of a one-and-one. If we make those free throws, [NIU] doesn’t have a chance.”
Ross’s key three-pointer and Bryant’s block sealed the EMU win, sending the team to Cleveland to play the Miami University of Ohio RedHawks on Wednesday night.
Murphy had a simple warning about the RedHawks.
“They’re much better than their record states,” Murphy said.
Tip-off is scheduled for 9 p.m. in Cleveland. The game can be heard live on WEMU 89.1 FM and the results of the game can be found exclusively on our website. You’ll see a newspaper on Thursday morning, but the game recap will only be on our website.
Follow Al Willman on Twitter: @AlWillmanEcho
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