Central Michigan falls to Buffalo in MAC title game

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Cleveland — Central Michigan junior point guard Chris Fowler played like a league MVP Saturday night at Quicken Loans Arena, but the Chippewas fell short of winning the Mid-American Conference tournament championship.

Fowler had 27 points and nine assists, playing all 40 minutes in the top-seeded Chippewas' 89-84 loss to Buffalo, the No. 2 seed.

It was CMU's first MAC championship game appearance since 2003 when 7-footer Chris Kaman led the Chippewas to the title, then an NCAA tournament win over Creighton.

There will be no NCAA tournament appearance for the Chips (22-8) this time, settling for the chance to play in the NIT. They will find out who and where they play Sunday night.

Buffalo sophomore guard Shannon Evans had a strong second-half performance, scoring 13 of his 18 points to help the Bulls (22-9) – coached by Bobby Hurley — earn their first MAC tournament championship and NCAA tourney bid.

The Chippewas won both regular-season meetings between the teams, but Buffalo showed it had too many weapons in the one that mattered most. Senior forward Xavier Ford matched Evans with 18 points, making three 3-pointers and also scoring numerous baskets inside.

Junior Justin Moss (Romulus), the MAC Player of the Year had a double-double (10 points, 11 rebounds). Freshman guard Lamonte Bearden had 14 points and six assists, junior guard Jarryn Skeete made two 3-pointers in the final five minutes, his first to open a 10-point lead.

"I felt like they made timely plays, made a lot of tough shots," said Fowler of the Bulls. "They made big shots down the stretch that prevented us from getting stops and getting scores."

CMU coach Keno Davis was pleased with the Chippewas' offense.

"They made a couple more threes than us, 10-for-22 (for Buffalo) and 8-for-22 (CMU) in a two-possession, one-possession game and that's where we strive," Davis said. "Offensively, we put up 84 points and shot 50 percent from the field, but we just didn't have any answer for them when they were able to go inside and outside with such success. They are a very talented team."

Fowler was obviously disappointed with the outcome, but the Chippewas — who were coming off consecutive 20-loss seasons and picked 11th in the preseason poll — surpassed expectations to get to the title game and will return all five starters next seasonyear from an NIT team.

"When we look back, we'll look back at good memories on the basketball season. But we're competitors and we want to win, so as of right now it's not feeling too good," said Fowler, who made 9-of-17 shots and turned the ball over onlyjust three times.

Simply put, Fowler didn't receive enough help, especially from 6-8 junior sharpshooter John Simons who was held scoreless the last time the teams played, but then averaged 17 points during the seven games leading into the MAC title game, making 53 percent of his 3three-pointers (36-of-67) in that stretch.

Buffalo beat Centralthe Chippewas at itstheir own game in the second half, making 5-of-9 3-pointers with CMU missing 10 of 14 3s.

Simons was aggressive at the start, making two 3-pointers during the game's first 2 ½ minutes. He scored nine to give CMU a 17-14 lead, but was then held scoreless for nearly 20 minutes, taking just three shots, one long-range shot during the second half.

"I think since the second time we played them they were switching on anybody that was guarding me and were trying to stay home which opened it up for our guards to drive," Simons said. "I got a few decent looks in the first half and I was able to draw a couple of fouls. They do a good job of switching and it doesn't matter if it's their biggest guy or their smallest guy, it doesn't matter. They are going to switch either way. That was their game plan and they stuck to it."

"Some shots that we normally get didn't fall and then we weren't able to get enough stops at the other end and they started running on us a little bit."

Ford said the Bulls weren't going to let Simons get room to feel comfortable shooting.

"I let him get loose in the first half and didn't want to give him any room to shoot the ball (in second half)," Ford said. "This feels good. I'm happy to be part of history … we're the first one in history to bring it (MAC championship) to Buffalo."

Fowler and Evans put on a show, especially during the second half when Fowler kept the Chippewas close with driving layups or finding teammates for shots off of dribble penetration while Evans scored 13, including his third 3-pointer to give Buffalo a 66-60 lead, then a highlight layup, when he faked a behind the back pass before scoring at the basket for a 68-62 lead.

"We knew we could get whatever shots we wanted," Evans said. "Our mindset was to get stops and get up and down the court and that's what we did."

Said Hurley: "This team has so much heart and really came together when we suffered a tough loss at six and six in the conference (following Valentine Day's 75-74 loss to CMU), to respond the way we have and to win eight straight games."

Simons and sophomore guard Braylon Rayson (4-of-13 shooting) each scored 13 for CMU with 6-11 freshman Luke Meyer scoring 10.

Fowler feels happy to still be playing, saying: "One thing we know is that our season isn't over yet. We're going to be playing next week somewhere and we're going to go out and give it our all."

So, what will this run do for next year with all the starters back?

"It means we have to work harder because now we can't surprise anybody or sneak up on anybody. Our work ethic needs to go up over the summer. We have to turn our weaknesses into our strengths. There's going to be no pressure, just a lot of fun playing basketball with a bunch of guys I love."