Ypsilanti – Things looked gloomy for Eastern Michigan when the Eagles opened the Mid-American Conference schedule with seven consecutive losses to sink to the basement of the West Division standings.
With EMU’s season spinning wildly out of control, the Eagles played host to West Division preseason favorite Toledo to start the month of February and responded with a 61-57 win.
Little did fans know at the time of the win over Toledo that the Eagles would start an impressive five-game stretch that would give them optimism for the rest of the season, including the MAC tournament, which gets underway at campus sites March 9.
EMU (14-11, 4-8) has won four of its last five with its lone loss at Akron 59-58 on Feb. 8, when the Eagles let a 15-point lead slip away, missing five free throws during the final 38 seconds.
In Saturday’s 69-51 rout of Western Michigan, the Eagles made 6-of-9 3-pointers in the first half to take a 39-26 halftime lead.
Boubacar Toure, a 7-foot, 240-pound redshirt senior, was a dominant force for the Eagles, making all eight of his shots, including a handful of dunks in the win over WMU, scoring 17 with six rebounds.
“I was just playing hard and just wanted to get to my spot because if I do that I’m hard to stop,” he said. “My teammates did a great job of getting the ball to me, so I was able to finish.”
Toure was named MAC West Division Player of the Week for averaging 18.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in sweeping rivals Central Michigan (73-70) and WMU, with Toure connecting on 17-of-18 shots (94.4 percent). He is averaging 10.9 points and 9.1 rebounds, and is shooting 69 percent from the field for the season.
Ty Groce, a 6-8 junior forward, had six assists with the majority coming on entry passes to Toure to set up dunks.
“Me and Ty I would say have the best chemistry on the team because we’ve been playing for two years now and most of our guys are new, so we have a good two-man game between us,” said Toure of Groce.
“We started the conference 0-7 and we had a lot of new guys who hadn’t played a MAC game before, so they kind of underestimated the level of competition and didn’t know how hard it was. Now, we’ve gotten things rolling. We just played hard and stayed together and that’s what got us here.”
The Eagles shot 52.9 percent from the field, had 13 assists and 11 steals to limit WMU to 40.9 percent shooting with their trademark 2-3 zone.
“That zone, once we lock in it’s very, very hard to score on us,” said Toure, who is a native of Dakar, Senegal. “I don’t think any one of these MAC teams want to play us in the MAC tournament. We’re one of the best defensive teams in the country.”
EMU coach Rob Murphy was thrilled with the week.
“Any time you can beat an in-state rival – two in one week – it’s a big deal,” said Murphy. “We were down (early) in the season, but we continued to work hard, so a lot of credit to these guys to continue to buy in to what we’ve been preaching and teaching.
“For us it’s important to learn how to close games, make your free throws, continue to get stops, make the right plays to close out games.
“Boubacar’s presence offensively was huge and he did a really good job defensively, and (freshman guard) Chris James came in and gave us a huge lift. We were up 13 points at halftime and he (James) scored 13.”
EMU stays home and will play Kent State (17-8, 7-5 East) Tuesday before traveling to play at Ball State (14-11, 7-5 West) Saturday.
Chips, Broncos slumping
Central Michigan was atop the MAC West standings a couple of weeks ago.
However, the Chippewas (13-11, 6-5) have lost their last three, including two straight at home – the loss to EMU and then an 80-67 setback to Akron Friday when they shot just 39.7 percent from the field and made just 6-of-24 3-pointers.
CMU will play a pair of road games this week, starting Tuesday at Ohio (12-13, 4-8 East) before playing at West Division leader Northern Illinois (15-11, 8-5) Saturday.
WMU (11-14, 4-8) has lost five of its last seven. Things won’t get any easier for the Broncos, who play Akron (19-6, 9-3 East) in Kalamazoo Tuesday.
Akron sits just one-half game behind Bowling Green (19-7, 10-3) in the East. Former Detroit Renaissance star Justin Turner scored 33 in Bowling Green’s 77-71 win over Ball State Saturday.