When adversity hits, men's basketball responds with answers of growing team
Just before halftime, Larry Austin Jr. soared to the rim through contact for an and-one bucket, putting his team within six points of Akron who, for the most part, controlled the first half.
A bucket like Austin's could've left the impression of positive momentum going into the locker room for the Central Michigan men's basketball team.
It, in fact, was quite the opposite.
"In the first half we were passive and soft," Austin said. "The first thing coach (Keno Davis) said when we got to the locker room was everyone thinks they can come in here and out-tough us. We didn't like that."
The Chippewas (13-2, 2-0 Mid-American Conference) didn't play like the team in the first 20 minutes that led them to an undefeated home record. Davis' group had six turnovers, were 4-of-14 (28.6 percent) from downtown and lacked rhythm.
Essentially, the Zips were doing the bullying.
The response? CMU opened the second half on a 10-0 run and forced Akron coach John Groce to call a timeout. Energy started to mount in McGuirk Arena, but the Zips didn't falter.
Akron tied the game, 40 all, out of the timeout. Each time CMU built a four-to-six point advantage, the Zips answered. A layup from Tyler Cheese put Akron back out front, 57-56, with 10:09 left in the second half. By the 4:36 mark, Akron had its lead to 70-62.
"We faced a lot of adversity as that second half went along," said junior forward Rob Montgomery. "They punched us, we knew we had to punch right back."
Montgomery threw the first punch. He scored a layup, which was followed by senior guard Shawn Roundtree Jr.'s 3-pointer to pull within three points. After a defensive stop from the Chippewas, Austin threw a long pass to Montgomery for the jam.
Austin flexed his muscles at half court, showing emotion with a howl. Montgomery did his due diligence, giving a nod and point to his point guard for the assist. The energy was back in McGuirk – the Chippewas trailed by just a point.
The two teams continued to go back and forth with lead changes until the final possession. CMU trailed 76-73 with nine seconds left. Roundtree attempted a contested triple and air-balled it, but junior forward David DiLeo scooped it up, went to the corner and drew a foul from beyond the arc with 5.2 seconds left.
Earlier this season, DiLeo missed two crucial free throws against Weber State and the team lost on a buzzer beater. This time, he hit the first and Akron called a timeout, but it didn't phase DiLeo. He sunk the next two, sending the Chippewas to overtime.
The signs of a growing team were becoming evident.
"This team has great confidence in their ability and you're not worried when they miss a shot to win the game, you want the ball in their hands the next time," said head coach Keno Davis. "Great play by David, but even more clutch to be able to knock down those shots and give us a chance."
Neither team pulled away to start overtime, so Roundtree was called on again to make substantial plays. He drew a foul and hit both free throws and followed with a triple from the right wing to give CMU an 86-82 advantage.
The Zips marched back as Jimond Ivey made two free throws to tie the game, 86-86, with 11 seconds to play. CMU had one last chance.
Austin caught the inbound pass, crossed half court and sprinted to the bucket. He fought through contact, made the shot with 2.6 seconds left, securing an 88-86 win for CMU.
It was the same type of shot Austin ended the first half with, but this time there was positive momentum, which they can now take into the upcoming contest against Bowling Green.
"Tree told me I got it, coach Keno told me I got this and just to have that trust in me to go finish it feels great," Austin said. "It paid off, our hard work as a unit to get a win."
Fighting through adversity just two games into MAC play proves to Davis the Chippewas can close out a tight game. To the seventh-year coach, the come-from-behind overtime win said a lot about what the future holds.
"The credit goes to them and the assistant coaches for their diligence in recruiting and finding these players," Davis said. "It is different this year with a collection of grad transfers and junior college transfers. You can't just throw in five or six new guys and expect them to work well together.
"It just shows how hard the individual players and coaches have worked with putting this group together."