'Unbelievable feeling': CMU women win MAC, earn third straight NCAA appearance

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

There's your starting five.

Central Michigan began the season as the favorite to win the Mid-American Conference women's basketball championship, and, after a season of ups and downs and downs and ups, the Chippewas finished as such, too.

Senior guard Micaela Kelly had 29 points and sophomore guard Molly Davis 23 as No. 2 seed Central Michigan stormed past regular-season champion Bowling Green, 77-72, in the MAC final Saturday at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in Cleveland.

Central Michigan players celebrate after winning the MAC championship.

Central Michigan gives the state of Michigan five NCAA Tournament-bound teams, along with the Michigan and Michigan State men's and women's teams.

"It's an unbelievable feeling right now," said Heather Oesterle, Central's second-year coach who was the heir apparent to school legend Sue Guevara — the two FaceTimed after Saturday's game, Oesterle from the court, Guevera home in Mount Pleasant. "I'm just so proud of our players.

"To see them go out on top is pretty special."

For Central, it's the fifth MAC tournament championship, and it'll be the sixth ever NCAA appearance — including three straight, and four since 2013. The Chippewas made the Sweet 16 in 2018 and lost a thriller to Michigan State in the first round in 2019. Last year's NCAA Tournament was canceled.

The Chippewas (18-8) struggled out of the gate, and trailed by 12 midway through the second half, before taking a one-point lead into halftime.

Kelly had four points at halftime.

"It's tough to stop 'Twin' for two halves," said Davis, wearing a MAC championship cap and T-shirt. "We all knew it was coming. She had the confidence in herself, we had the confidence in her.

BOX SCORE: Central Michigan 77, Bowling Green 72

"She just kind of took over in that second half."

Central Michigan drew up the first play after the break for Kelly, and she made a jumper eight seconds in. The Chippewas went on a 12-0 run to take a 48-39 lead, with Kelly scoring 10 points during that run.

Bowling Green (20-6) battled back to take a 56-55 lead with 1:54 left in the third quarter, but two of the Falcons' top players had four fouls before the fourth quarter.

Central went on a 10-0 run midway through the fourth quarter, highlighted by two 3-pointers from Davis, one just beating the shot clock, to all but seal the game.

The Chippewas made the free throws they needed late, and 13-for-16 for the game.

"We're so close," said Bowling Green coach Robyn Fralick, an Okemos native, whose staff includes three assistants who are Michigan natives — Kim Cameron (Alpena), Maria Kasza (Rapid City) and Joel Whymer (Port Huron).

"But a lot of credit to Central Michigan. They're a great team and a great program, and I know they'll represent the MAC well."

Bowling Green's Lexi Fleming (25) is stopped by Central Michigan's Maddy Watters (4) during the second half.

Senior guard Maddy Watters added 11 points for Central, and junior forward Jahari Smith, star of the OT semifinal win against Ohio, had eight points and seven rebounds. Senior forward Kyra Bussell returned from injury, with four points and four rebounds.

Kelly, out of Detroit King, and Davis combined for 117 points in the semifinal and final. Kelly also had six assists Saturday, and was named the tournament's MVP.

"They're so dynamic," said Bowling Green's Kadie Hempfling, "both of them."

Five players scored in double-figures for Bowling Green, led by Elissa Brett's 18 and Lexi Fleming's 13.

Central Michigan will learn its first-round NCAA Tournament opponent during the Selection Show on Monday night. The tournament is being held entirely in Texas — a long way, literally and figuratively, from Mount Pleasant, where the Chippewas began their summer practice outdoors, shooting on old Gus Macker rims, because they weren't allowed to go into the gym.

The Chippewas had a three-game skid in January, and a two-gamer recently, against Bowling Green and Toledo. Because of positive COVID-19 tests and contact tracing, they've been playing with just eight available players (seven Saturday sans Bussell).

"We wanted to end the season a lot better than the way we started," Kelly said. "We ended up coming together and pulling through and getting a championship.

"It's pretty amazing."

Big Ten women

Maryland 104, Iowa 84: Seventh-ranked Maryland’s scoring depth and impressive skill were once again on display as it claimed a second consecutive Big Ten Tournament championship.

There’s a reason coach Brenda Frese’s Terrapins (24-2) have reached this title game in each of the seven seasons since Maryland joined the conference, and won six of seven regular-season titles. The nation’s No. 1 offense comes at an opponent fast and is relentless.

The Terps have won 13 in a row, all by double digits, to earn consideration for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Chloe Bibby led the Terps with 21 points, including 11 with three 3-pointers in the opening quarter. Seven of eight players who scored early had more than one basket. Each half started with top-seeded Maryland hitting a 3-pointer on the opening possession.

Then there were moments when the talent was undeniably unique. Late in the first half, Angel Reese threw a no-look, wrap-around pass inside to Faith Masonius, who finished with a reverse layup. And both of those players come off the bench.

About that balance, in addition to Bibby, Mimi Collins had 17 points and six rebounds, Diamond Miller 15 points and six assists, Katie Benzan 14 points and six assists, and Ashley Owusu 12 points and seven assists.

Maryland’s unselfish ballhandlers had a 29-19 advantage in assists. Maryland’s bench outscored Iowa’s 23-9. And the Terrapins produced more in the paint, 46-30.

Iowa (18-9) has two special players in All-Big Ten standouts Monika Czinano and Freshman of the Year Caitlin Clark, who had 22 and 21 points, respectively. The Hawkeyes shot 53% from the field, but couldn’t stop Maryland’s offense, whether it was trying to defend strong drives to the rim, getting back in transition, or not extending enough on the perimeter to prevent 3-pointers. The Terps seemingly did whatever they wanted.

Maryland led 29-18 after the first quarter and 55-37 at halftime. Iowa never narrowed the gap to single digits. Maryland led 79-57 after three quarters.

MAC women's tournament

At Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, Cleveland

WEDNESDAY

►No. 1 Bowling Green 63, No. 8 Eastern Michigan 47

►No. 4 Buffalo 73, No. 5 Kent State 66

►No. 2 Central Michigan 83, No. 7 Northern Illinois 69

►No. 3 Ohio 61, No. 6 Ball State 59

FRIDAY

►No. 1 Bowling Green 80, No. 4 Buffalo 67

►No. 2 Central Michigan 100, No. 3 Ohio 92

SATURDAY

►Championship, No. 2 Central Michigan 77, No. 1 Bowling Green 72

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984