Men's basketball falls in heartbreaker at MAC tournament

Detroit junior Brian Taylor goes up for a layup during the game Thursday, March 10 at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in Cleveland, Ohio.

CLEVELAND, OH — Built from the ground up, a culture of hard-nosed competitive basketball emerged and built the foundation of the future of the club. Though success can be measured in accolades, this team will live on as one of the best comeback stories in CMU basketball history.

Central Michigan ultimately ran out of time in the opening round of the Mid-American Conference Tournament, losing to the Toledo Rockets 72-71.

CMU, seeded No. 8, played their final game of their season against top seed Toledo, but it was far from a disappoint and more of a celebratory send-off of a team that fought through adversity all year and never gave up.

“You’re always disappointed losing games like that, but I told the guys, more than anything as the first year I’m proud of this group that finished the season,” said head coach Tony Barbee. “They help set the tone for what it is going to be like playing Central Michigan moving forward as long as I’m the head coach.”

With under one-minute remaining CMU big-man Harrison Henderson converted an and-one bucket to get within one point of the Rockets at 69-70. 

Toledo first team All-MAC guard Ryan Rollins tried a fadeaway two with 39 seconds left but clanked it off the rim, and CMU swiftly called a timeout. Out of the break Henderson grabbed the ball with both hands and slammed it home to put the Chippewas up 71-70.

Toledo came back down the court and scored a running floater to go up one. with the final possession, the game was in the Chippewas hands. But off the inbound the Chippewas turned the ball over, then fouled Toledo.

Rollins went to the line but missed his free-throw, CMU only had seven seconds to turn up-court and create magic.

Unfortunately, the Chippewas ran out of time to find the best shot. An off-balance triple try from Henderson missed wide, and the Rockets grabbed the rebound to end the game. The Chippewas' heads and hearts fell, but they walked off the court with pride.

“We lost tonight strictly because we ran out of time, not because they played or fought harder than us, I told the guys after the game that I was proud of them for establishing the culture and what this program is going to be about,” Barbee said.

This idea of culture has been brought up and mentioned in many games prior and one player that has shown that energy all year and especially vs. Toledo is guard Kevin Miller. 

“Basically, we’re just establishing the culture for the new guys who come in,” said Miller. “Next year will be a great year for us.”

Miller ended the night with 13 points on 6-16 shooting, dished out a game high eight assists and four boards. While Miller looks forward some players may have played their final game. 

Henderson was undoubtably clutch in the final minute, while he wasn’t the best option for the final shot, he deserved it. He had a double-double with 21 points on 8-15 from the field, and a game high 10 boards.

Defensive wing Brian Taylor emerged as a hot commodity for the Chippewas from the three-point line as he led the Chippewas from the long-line. He went 5-9 form the field and 3-5 from the three for 15 points, eight rebounds and strong defense.

“My teammates found me and I had to do my job to make the shots,” said Taylor.

It was a close matchup through all 40 minutes. The game was tied at 10 different points, there were 11 lead changes, and the largest lead was only seven points by Toledo. 

The Chippewas rolled into the half with a 32-30 lead over the Rockets. After the half both the Rockets and Chippewas offensives became extremely efficient. Toledo abandoned their reliance on the three-point shot and found success shott 59.3% from the field in the second half.

But the 2-3 zone needed to be faster on rotations to fully stop Toledo’s offense early in the first half. But the Chippewas defense improved as the half ended.

“It was shocking to me, the first time going through the MAC and conference schedule that more teams don’t play zones,” said Barbee. “It made a team like Toledo a little more stagnant and a little more predictable of where their players would be.”

In the second half the supporting cast of Rollins began to make themselves known. Toledo junior and third team All-MAC selection Setric Milner Jr. became a major factor in the Rockets offensive game.

Milner Jr. scored the game high 22 points on 10-17 from the field, 2-5 from three and added five rebounds and a steal. Rollins scored 14 points on 4-10 from the field with six rebounds, three assists and two steals.

CMU outrebounded Toledo 40-31 had one more total assist, 14-13, than Toledo and shot 76.9% from the line compared to the Rockets 66.7% from the foul line.

But what hurt the Chippewas was their 14 turnovers and inability to score any points off the eight Toledo turnovers.

The final game of the season was reminiscent of many of the Chippewas close games this year. But if one thing is certain next season should be just as exciting as the 2021-22 season.