Short-handed CMU women out to earn NCAA bid that was taken away in 2020

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

It's not that the Central Michigan women's basketball team thinks it's owed anything.

But that doesn't mean the Chippewas don't have an axe to grind entering this week's Mid-American Conference tournament in Cleveland.

Central Michigan, as the No. 1 seed, was upset by No. 9 Toledo in the first round last year, but it still would've been given the league's NCAA Tournament bid for winning the regular-season championship after COVID-19 wiped out the rest of the MAC tournament. Problem was, the NCAA pulled the plug, too. That would've given the Chippewas a third consecutive NCAA Tournament bid.

Senior guard Micaela Kelly leads Central Michigan into the MAC tournament this week.

"Our team's going into Cleveland with a little chip on our shoulder," second-year head coach Heather Oesterle said Monday, taking a break from watching film.

"We don't think we've played our best basketball yet, and they're aware of that. We have three seniors right now that flat-out don't want to lose. They want to keep their season going."

Central Michigan (15-8, 13-6 MAC), the preseason pick to win the title again, finished second and will open the MAC tournament against No. 7 seed Northern Illinois (12-11, 10-8) at approximately 4 p.m. Wednesday at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse. The MAC, to save money amid the COVID-19 pandemic, did away with opening-round games at campus sites this year, and limited the tournament field to eight.

This will be the second consecutive meeting between Central Michigan and Northern Illinois, with the Chippewas falling behind early in the regular-season finale before rallying to win, 74-68, on Saturday.

Micaela Kelly, a senior guard from Detroit King, scored 25 to help the Chippewas make up for a 104-73 loss to the Huskies earlier in the season. Kelly is averaging 23.4 points, five rebounds and four assists and is in the running for MAC player of the year.

Fellow guard Molly Davis, a sophomore from Midland Dow, is averaging 20.2 points. Junior center Jahari Smith is averaging a team-best 7.5 rebounds.

Kelly's fellow seniors, guard Maddy Waters (Rockford) and Kyra Bussell (Grand Rapids Catholic Central), average 9.4 and 9.3 points, respectively.

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Beyond that, the Chippewas are slim. They had to cancel the Feb. 27 game against Eastern Michigan because of COVID-19 issues, and have been playing with only eight available players. Four bench players are out with COVID-19 or contact tracing, and won't be available this week in Cleveland, either. In the 87-81 double-overtime win over Ball State last Wednesday, Central Michigan had three players foul out and were down to just five, and Watters had four fouls with more than two minutes left.

"We told her, 'Don't play any defense,'" Oesterle said, laughing. "I don't want to make 'SportsCenter.'

"If we do get in foul trouble, we'll have to go to a smaller lineup."

Central Michigan made a run to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament in 2018, then lost a one-point heartbreaker to Michigan State in the opening round in 2019 before last year's wipeout.

This Chippewas team doesn't have the resume of the previous two, so the MAC is almost certainly a one-bid league. It's win in Cleveland, or be done for the season, where there's been a bit of a buffer the last two.

Central got off to a 7-2 start this season, with only losses to now-No. 13 Michigan and Michigan State.

But it had a three-game losing streak in January, the program's longest in conference play since 2015.

The ship seems to have been righted at just the right time.

"We struggled at times with our confidence," Oesterle said. "We talked yesterday about making sure we're playing aggressive and confident with March here, getting those two things back. 

"There's a lot of fight in us still."

Eastern Michigan (10-9, 7-7) earned the eighth and final seed in the MAC tournament, despite missing more than two weeks from January into February because of COVID. The Eagles play No. 1 Bowling Green (18-5, 14-4) at 11 a.m. Wednesday, and are trying to do this year what Toledo did to Central Michigan last year.

On the men's side, none of the state teams qualified. Western Michigan, the No. 9 seed, would've been elevated to No. 8 and in the tournament had Ohio opted out because of COVID-19, but the Bobcats are playing despite cancelling their last two regular-season games.

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MAC women's tournament

At Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, Cleveland

WEDNESDAY

►No. 1 Bowling Green (18-5, 14-4) vs. No. 8 Eastern Michigan (10-9, 7-7), 11 a.m. (ESPN+)

►No. 4 Buffalo (14-8, 11-6) vs. No. 5 Kent State (11-8, 10-6), 1:30 (ESPN+)

►No. 2 Central Michigan (15-8, 13-6) vs. No. 7 Northern Illinois (12-11, 10-8), 4 (ESPN+)

►No. 3 Ohio (13-7, 11-6) vs. No. 6 Ball State (14-10, 12-8), 6:30 (ESPN+)

FRIDAY

►Semifinal, 10 a.m. (ESPN+)

►Semifinal, 12:30 (ESPN+)

SATURDAY

►Championship, 11 a.m. (CBSSN)

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984