CLEVELAND-”Nik! Nik!” Crystal Bradford shouted from the bench.
The junior’s advice sent a cross-court pass from junior Jessica Green to senior Niki DiGuilio, who hit an early 3-pointer.
Central Michigan women’s basketball’s most celebrated athlete was in a familiar role Saturday as she coached and encouraged her team in Mid-American Conference semifinal action.
The only difference was Bradford, the MAC Player of the Year, was doing it in street clothes and on crutches. Bradford screamed direction, talked strategy with coaches and did everything short of suiting up for CMU’s heartbreaking loss.
Role-players and unlikely heroes shined briefly, but CMU ultimately faltered with its largest asset missing.
As the Chippewas lost to Akron 85-69, even Braford – the team’s loudest cheerleader – sat on the bench in silence. For the first time all season, Bradford was powerless and her team’s tournament run was over.
The Chippewas will wait until tonight to find out if they have earned a spot in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament this year.
“Are we a different team with Bradford? Yes. But are we a team that deserves to make a tournament without her? Yes,” said head coach Sue Guevara. “God willing we do get to keep playing, this team is resilient.”
A Wicked Week
Bradford injured her left knee during practice Tuesday, less than an hour after earning the MAC’s highest individual honor. She was unaware she had won the award at the time of her injury.
As she sat on the practice bench with tears in her eyes and ice on her knee, Bradford was surrounded by her teammates and coaches. Guevara announced to the team that it was consoling the MAC Player of the Year.
“I was petrified that (Bradford) would get on her phone and find out that she was MAC Player of the Year,” Guevara said. “I brought the team over to her. As happy as we all should have been, here is the MAC Player of the Year sitting here crying.”
Bradford also admitted the moment was bittersweet.
“It feels good to get the award, but there are a few other things on my mind right now,” she said Tuesday. “If I’m over here looking sad (the team) is going to be all sad. Just because I’m out doesn’t mean we can’t do it.”
Bradford is scheduled to be re-evaluated medically early this week. With an at-large NCAA tournament bid unlikely, the Chippewas future remains uncertain.
“Our team had to adjust (without Bradford), ” Guevara said after the loss to Akron. “The tough part about that is we had to wait so long to play to see just exactly how it would adjust.”
The missing piece
Bradford’s defensive prowess and unmatched speed were absent in CMU’s loss to Akron.
The Zips scored 11 fast-break points to CMU’s two. The Chippewas allowed Akron to shoot 42 percent from 3-point range, including 75 percent in the second half.
Junior guard Jessica Green, who missed last year’s MAC tournament with a knee injury, led all CMU scorers in the loss with 15.
“It wasn’t like we freaked out or anything like that,” Green said. “It was a normal week. I thought we had a couple of players that really came out there and gave all they have.”
Role-players such as sophomore Da’Jourie Turner and redshirt freshman Jewel Cotton made notable contributions to keep CMU close early in the second half.
Turner missed two key 1-and-1 free throw chances with less than five minutes remaining and the Chippewas down by 10 points.
“Dogs that chase cars don’t live long and teams that miss free throws don’t win championships,” Guevara said. “This won’t happen to (Turner) again the same way next year.”
After the game, Turner tweeted that she plans to get two championship rings in the pair of years she has left at CMU, tweeting she would get “one for each middle finger for ya’ll haters.”
Senior record-setters Niki DiGuilio and Taylor Johnson took a loss in the last MAC action of their careers.
“It’s hard going out like this in your last year,” Johnson said. “But I know this team like the back of my hand. They will bounce back next year and get right back at it and do work.”