Back to Cleveland: Chippewa women using 'business as usual' mindset heading into MAC Tourney

No. 2 seed CMU faces No. 7-seeded NIU in MAC quarterfinals


Central Michigan guard Micaela Kelly drives between two Toledo defenders March 11 at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in Cleveland, OH.

When CMU's women's basketball team was last in Cleveland, Ohio, the team walked out of Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse after losing to Toledo, 78-71, in the Mid-American Conference Tournament quarterfinal.

"That was a tough game for us," head coach Heather Oesterle said after the loss on March 11, 2020. "I give a lot of credit to Toledo. I thought their physical play really bothered us from the start."

The next day, the remainder of both men's and women's MAC Tournaments were canceled due to the newly discovered COVID-19 threat. 

A year later, playing through a pandemic and completing a regular season without fans has led back to Cleveland. 

However, when they get there, it is business as usual for the Chippewas. 

"We've had a whole season, we're used to (playing amid the pandemic)," said Detroit senior guard Micaela Kelly. "There's no change in feeling, it's just the next game up and it's even better that we're playing for a championship."

"Same goal in mind," said Rockford senior guard Maddy Watters. "Always looking for that trophy at the end, nothing changes." 

Staying safe

Through the entire regular season, CMU had just one game affected by COVID-19 issues within the program —a Feb. 27 game at Eastern Michigan.

However, when the Chippewas were able to take the floor on March 3 at Ball State, CMU had just eight players — the minimum allowed for competition — and earned a double-overtime win over the Cardinals. 

Then, just three days later, the Chippewas found a way to earn a come-from-behind victory over Northern Illinois with the same eight. 

"(They're) playing for each other at this point," Oesterle said. "I've seen some good chemistry with the eight." 

Given the lack of depth CMU has, Oesterle said she knows the importance of prepping the team safely and getting her eight players to Cleveland to open up tournament play against NIU on March 10. 

"My focus is to make sure these eight kids are ready to play next week and we don't get shut down because someone brings COVID to our campus and one of our kids gets infected," Oesterle said after the March 6 win over the Huskies. "Just making sure we get through the testing and get to Cleveland will be a win for just to get there."

Oesterle said staying in hotels in Cleveland is not a worry for her, but she implored her players to stay safe a little while longer to have the opportunity to play in the postseason. 

"Everything makes me nervous about taking your mask off, seeing people that aren't in our bubble," Oesterle said. "So, I told them to please be good, that's where my nerves are." 

Ready to play

Last season's quarterfinal against Toledo was an eye-opener for Oesterle and CMU — from both a basketball perspective and a life perspective just days before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Focusing on the basketball perspective, Oesterle said she noticed her team take its foot off the proverbial gas pedal and coast to the finish — making the target on the Chippewas' back that much bigger in tournament play. 

During the offseason, Oesterle said she listened to coaches around the country discuss ways to keep legs fresh heading into March — finding a way to peak in tournament time. 

Last year's team fell short of that in the quarterfinal against Toledo. 

This year's team has the opportunity to change the narrative against NIU. 

"Last year, we lost three out of our last four games," Oesterle said. "I don't think we were playing our best basketball in March. We wrapped up the championship and relaxed. There's more of a fight to win another championship.

"I like the way we're playing right now, better than I did last year."