MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. - John Simons scored a career-high 28 points, Chris Fowler had 24, and Braylon Rayson added 21 Tuesday as the Central Michigan Chippewas wrapped up a share of the Mid-American Conference championship with an 85-77 victory Tuesday at raucous McGuirk Arena.
It was an emotional night for all involved as the Chippewas went from a team that won a combined seven MAC games over the past two seasons to the top of the heap.
"It's nice to be able to celebrate a championship in front of the Mount Pleasant community and fans and, of course, our students," third-year CMU coach Keno Davis said. "There's so many games that we had this year that they came out in full force to help us to the level we're at right now."
With their victory, the Chippewas moved to 22-6, 12-5 MAC. They lead the league by one game and close the regular season Friday at Western Michigan. If they win, they will be the No. 1 seed and receive a bye to the semifinals - in the MAC Tournament next week in Cleveland.
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"Feeling pretty good right now, feeling pretty good," said Fowler, with a measure of satisfaction in his voice. "We're excited that we were able to accomplish this, we're excited that we got to celebrate here at the university. That means a lot, in front of the students, in front of the fans.
"We've never been to Cleveland; we've heard it's nice. Going there is going to be fun and we're going to enjoy the opportunity. But we've got to play on Friday. We're going to take care of Friday."
A dunk by DaRohn Scott off an alley-oop pass from Rayson broke a 44-44 tie with 17:18 remaining, touching off a 12-2 spurt that gave the Chippewas a 56-46 lead with under 12 minutes to play.
Toledo (19-11, 11-6) continued to battle, but CMU - led by the hot-shooting of Simons, who finished 8-for-12 from three-point range and a perfect 4-for-4 from the free throw line - simply refused to wilt.
The Rockets closed to within four, 68-64, with 4:39 to play, but a Simons triple with 4:18 left restored the lead to seven, 71-64. Fowler scored on a drive a minute later to make it 73-64, and Toledo never got closer than seven the rest of the way.
Rayson was a perfect 6-for-6 from the free throw line in the final 55 seconds to ice it.
When the game concluded, the Chippewas celebrated with the traditional cutting down of the net in front of the student section on the west end of McGuirk. Most of the crowd then remained in the stands and joined players watching the final moments of Kent State’s thrilling 81-80 victory over Bowling Green. It was an outcome that works in CMU's favor toward giving it the best regular-season record and, with it, the top seed for the tournament.
"For (the fans) to stay and celebrate and witness the cutting down of the net and to watch the end of the other game," Davis said. "I think it said something special about the character of the student-athletes we have on this team.
The moment was particularly special for the likes of Fowler and Simons, part of a group of juniors who have been with Davis since day one of the rebuilding project. It's a group that took its share of lumps in its first two years in Mount Pleasant, but continually pulled itself up, dusted itself off, and persevered.
Simons, who also grabbed a team-high eight rebounds, said the entire evening was special, but that the Chippewas have more steps ahead, beginning Friday.
"We've had the same goals since we came together almost three years ago," he said. "We knew it was going to be a process, and a process it was from the start to where we are now.
"Maybe we're a little farther along than other people thought we would be. We're not satisfied with where we are, but it's a good feeling to be where we're at at this point.
He continued, "This is just one of our goals that we set at the beginning of the year. So it feels good to knock one of our goals off this early with still a game to go. We still have more goals that we want to achieve this year. We've still got more work to do. We'll enjoy this tonight and then tomorrow we'll come back to work and get prepared."
Julius Brown scored 20 points to lead five Rockets in double figures. J.D. Weatherspoon grabbed 12 rebounds as Toledo held a 40-32 edge on the boards.
CMU countered that by playing a near flawless floor game. Fowler finished with seven assists and the Chippewas committed just six turnovers.
"Every single one of our guys, from the guys who aren't dressed to the guys who play 40 minutes," Simons said, "everybody is equally happy for each other and to do this as a team. I think that's something that's been special about our team all year - we've been able to stick together and nobody is selfish about wanting to do this for themselves. ... I think that says a lot about our team and how special we can really be this year."
(Courtesy of CMU Athletics/MRO Edit)