Men’s basketball held on to beat Niagara Sunday afternoon at McGuirk Arena 66-64, despite seeing a first-half 20-point lead dwindle away throughout the game.
It looked like Central Michigan was going to run the Purple Eagles out of Mount Pleasant with a 33-13 lead with 4:54 left in the first half.
But a late charge by Niagara saw that 20-point lead cut in half to end the first half at 35-23 before disappearing entirely in the second half, as Niagara took a 50-49 lead with 7:00 remaining.
“I give (Niagara) a lot of credit,” head coach Keno Davis said. “They switched to a zone defense that we were not able to solve, and they trapped us and we weren’t ready for that … they disrupted us with what they did defensively.”
Fortunately, the Chippewas had senior point guard Kyle Randall, who scored a career-high for the second-straight game, topping his 21-point effort on Wednesday with a team-high 24 on Sunday. He was also one of five players to lead the team with four rebounds and led the team with three assists.
“I just do whatever the team needs me to do for the win,” Randall said. “But, it was a big team-win today, and we’re glad everyone could contribute.”
CMU benefited from the free-throw line, shooting 79.2 percent, while the Purple Eagles shot 50 percent from the line. Randall made eight of his nine attempts from the line.
“That’s something I’ve been working on,” Randall said. “Every practice, we shoot free throws during … then we finish up with them; it’s something we take pride in.”
The Chippewas were without senior center Zach Saylor, who was sidelined with an injury. There is no set timetable for his return as of yet, Davis said.
Davis went to senior forward Oliver Mbaigoto in Saylor’s absence, but he was no replacement.
CMU was out-rebounded 35-30 and outscored in the paint 36-28 with Niagara getting 18 second-chance points.
“We’re not using (Saylor’s injury) as an excuse; we’re not happy with our rebounding effort tonight,” Davis said. “It’s a big improvement area, yet we won the game.”
Despite the blown lead and struggles on the boards, the Chippewas held on and won – something Davis is proud of for his young team.
“There are a lot more veteran teams that, in that situation, give up a big lead from being 20 up to down five or six and that’s it, momentum gone and the game is over,” Davis said. “For our young group to be able to battle back … it says a lot about the character of the young men we have in our program.”
CMU is on the road next weekend and will take on Charlotte at 2 p.m. on Saturday in Charlotte, N.C.