Cleveland — Micaela Kelly gave top-seeded Central Michigan a huge boost to start the second half and the Chippewas used the momentum to earn a 96-91 victory over No. 2 seed Buffalo Saturday afternoon in the Mid-American Conference tournament championship game at Quicken Loans Arena for the right to hoist the ultimate trophy.
The Chippewas (28-4) were celebrating, dancing on the floor LeBron James made famous while earning their first MAC championship since 2013. They find out who they will be playing in the NCAA Tournament Monday night.
Kelly, a redshirt freshman point guard who transferred from DePaul, made a pair of 3-pointers early in the third quarter to open a 49-42 cushion.
Kelly (Detroit King) scored 10 of her team-high 26 points during the pivotal third quarter when MAC Player of the Year, CMU 6-foot-3 senior Tinara Moore came alive offensively.
“This is one of my dreams, we won a championship so this feels great,” Kelly said. “I just felt like we’re supposed to come out every half strong, just as Coach (Sue Guevara) says, so I felt like I had to knock down shots when I was open.
“We weren’t giving her (Moore) the ball enough so we decided we had to continue to work the ball around and get her a look and when we saw her open, continue to give it to her. It’s important to get everyone involved because we’re a team and we play together.”
After being held scoreless for the first 2½ quarters, Moore (Southgate) scored eight points during a 12-7 run to open up a 66-56 lead late in the third.
Kelly made her fifth 3-pointer in the opening minute of the fourth to give the Chippewas a 72-61 lead.
Moore scored off a putback and was fouled with 6:26 left, leading to a technical foul on Buffalo coach Felisha Legette-Jack. Presley Hudson made two free throws off the technical, then Moore completed the three-point play to give the Chippewas a 77-63 lead to set up the party.
“My teammates kept believing in me,” said Moore of her second-half uprising. “I wasn’t scoring in the first half and in the second half they really fed me the ball and I just came up strong.”
The tears flowing down Moore’s face just showed what the MAC championship meant.
“This is huge, especially since this is my senior year and it’s really what I wanted,” Moore said. “I accomplished every goal that I wanted to this year so this is really amazing. This is my first time in the NCAA Tournament, so I can’t wait for Monday (Selection Show). We’re going to be happy whoever we’re playing.”
Moore made 6-of-8 shots during the second half. Moore (17 points, 14 rebounds) and 6-0 junior forward Reyna Frost (10 points, 11 rebounds) each had double-doubles as CMU held a 44-34 rebounding edge.
The Chippewas made 12 of 22 3-pointers with Hudson scoring 26, making 3-of-8 shots from deep range and making 9-of-10 free throws during the fourth quarter, the majority coming after Buffalo made it a two-possession game (86-80) with 1:36 left.
Junior guard Cierra Dillard scored 26 for Buffalo (27-5), making 5-of-15 3-pointers. Senior guard Stephanie Reid had 15 points before suffering a leg injury and being helped off the court with 4:52 left with her team trailing 80-68.
The teams — which split the regular season series — entered the game in great position to earn at-large bids into the NCAA Tournament due to high RPIs, Buffalo (27-5) at 19 and CMU sitting No. 25.
But, CMU wasn’t looking for an at-large bid. Instead, the Chippewas wanted to party and they played like it from the start, dominating the opening quarter, making 6-of-12 3-pointers and holding a 17-5 rebounding advantage to take a 26-14 lead.
“It was huge,” Moore said. “We know we’re the better team. We’re the No. 1 overall seed for a reason, we’re 17-and-1 (MAC record) for a reason, so we just had to come out and take that first punch.”
And, CMU got strong efforts from multiple players to set the tone with Hudson scoring 11 and making three 3-pointers, Cassie Breen scoring eight and making a pair of 3-pointers and Moore was held scoreless, but grabbed seven rebounds or more than the entire Buffalo team.
“I think part of it was Presley Hudson was able to stay in the game,” said Guevara of CMU’s 3-point success against the nation’s fourth-best team at stopping the deep shot. “The first two games that she played here she sat pretty much the whole first half against Eastern (Michigan) and Miami and Pres is the little engine that makes the train go. When she hit her first 3, I thought OK this is really good.
“Guys, this is March and March is all about guard play. If you look at what Twin (Kelly) did, for Twin to be 5-of-6 from the 3-point line … I’ll tell you right now coaches aren’t expecting that because everybody expects Twin to penetrate and drive, and when they played off of her she made them pay for it.”
Frost picked up her second foul with 6½ minutes left in the half, shortly after she made a pair of free throws for a 33-20 lead and the momentum changed when she took a seat on the bench.
The Chippewas started turning the ball over and Buffalo did a much better job on the boards, getting second-chance points off of offensive rebounds, actually using a 20-6 run to take a 40-39 lead on Cierra Dillard’s 3-pointer.
Kelly ended Buffalo’s hopes of a championship when she had her outstanding third quarter, along with Guevara finding a way to get the ball to Moore. And, it also helped that Frost was back on the floor and playing at a high level while not picking up her third foul until the fourth quarter.
“Tinara Moore touched the ball two times in the first half,” Guevara said. “We made the adjustment. We kept trying to go high-low and it was like, guys were not going to get the ball in high-low, it’s got to go on the wing, and then I thought she got a little bit more aggressive and demanding the basketball and then finishing.”
Frost, who called herself a role player, earned tournament MVP honors, averaging 14 points and 12.3 rebounds in the three-game event. Moore and Kelly were also on the All-Tournament Team, along with Buffalo’s Dillard and Reid.
“I owe it a lot to my teammates, I think I’m just a role player on the team,” Frost said. “I’m about defense and hustle and it comes down to rebounding and getting some points and that’s my role, but we had other people step up today too, like Twin (Kelly) who was in the 20s, Presley (Hudson) hit some shots, Tinara hit some shots so it really was a team effort, but I’m blessed that they recognized my role as a hustle player.”
CMU officials said there will be a NCAA Tournament selection show viewing party, open to the public, held Monday night at Hunter’s Ale House in Mount Pleasant, starting at 6 p.m. with the pairings set to be announced at 7.