These realities hit home Wednesday as the Central Michigan Chippewas fell to UT Martin, 76-73, in the opening round of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament at McGuirk Arena.
Central Michigan finishes the season 17-16 and claimed a second-straight Mid-American Conference West Division title.
With the loss, the Chippewas not only saw the curtains close their 2015-16 season, but also said farewell to a group of seniors that helped change the culture around CMU basketball. Chris Fowler, Rayshawn Simmons, John Simons and Austin Stewart played their final game in a Chippewa uniform.
Those players were . . .
"They really were an under recruited and valued group that we were able to assemble," said Davis. "They accomplished great things because of the character that they had and because of their work ethic. They're going to be missed, but they're also going to be appreciated "
Fowler, a four-year captain, leaves as the program's all-time leader in assists and ranks fifth in career points. Simons holds the record for career 3-pointers.
The quartet was the nucleus of the program, taking it from the bottom of the MAC to the regular-season championship in 2014-15. It was CMU's first MAC title in more than a decade.
If there were was any doubt about the motivation and energy level the Chippewas would have following their disappointing loss to Bowling Green in the quarterfinals of the MAC Tournament, they were quickly forgotten.
"It's tough (refocusing), when you had aspirations of playing in the NCAA (Tournament)," Davis said. "Our guys were very professional in how they handled it, and I think you saw guys that still cared to go out there and compete and not lay down."
CMU battled the Jaguars throughout the entire 40 minutes. The game included 19 lead changes and four ties. Neither team led by more than seven points.
Josh Kozinski hit a deep 3-pointer with 2:57 left to give the Chippewas a 73-71 lead. UT-Martin answered with a 3-pointer at the 44-second mark to pull ahead 74-73.
"They were a pretty athletic team," said Kozinski. "Toward the end of the season, guys get run down, and they did a good job of pushing the ball."
A pair of free throws extended UT-Martin's lead to 76-73. CMU's Braylon Rayson then forced a turnover with three seconds left, giving the Chippewas one last chance to tie it.
Fowler found Simons with an inbounds pass, but Simons' 3-point attempt at the buzzer rattled out.
Rayson, a junior guard, led the Chippewas with 24 points, including a 6-of-11 performance from behind the arc. Kozinski finished with 15 points -- all coming via the 3-point shot. As a team, the Chippewas made 15 of their 43 triple tries. They finished the season with 324 3-pointers, eclipsing the record (322) they set last season. Fowler added 10 points and Simons grabbed 10 rebounds.
Alex Anderson scored 21 points to lead UT-Martin (20-14).
With the departure of four key seniors, Rayson and Kozinski will be among the candidates to fill the leadership void next season.
"I think it's going to be special next year," Rayson said. "I know people are looking at (the seniors leaving) like losing the heart of the team, which they were. That just means it's time for everybody else to step up and we have to come up and do the things that they did."
(Courtesy of CMU Athletics)