By MIKE SMITH
CLEVELAND, Ohio – Juniors Chris Fowler and John Simons combined for 49 points to lead Central Michigan past Toledo, 75-66, in MAC basketball tournament semifinal action Friday at Quicken Loans Arena.
"This team has come so far this season," CMU head coach Keno Davis said. We "came into the season with expectations that were low outside of Mt. Pleasant (and) outside of our locker room, being picked 11th (by the media in a preseason poll)."
Central Michigan, the tourney’s No. 1 seed, saw its first tournament action in opposing the third-seeded Rockets. If there was any rust from a nearly week-long layoff, it didn’t show – other than possibly in an 8-for-23 performance from beyond the arc.
"All but one of our players hadn't been in the gym in previous years, so to come out and play maybe our best game of the year - our toughest on defense (and) having the energy we did, it's a credit to the players," Davis said.
Still, CMU hit enough threes to keep Toledo defending the perimeter. By the second half, Central Michigan – with Fowler at the helm -- was spreading the floor and penetrating on drives.
"I think we did a pretty good job of paying attention to detail and sticking to the scouting report," Fowler said. "It was one of the better performances we've had over 40 minutes all year."
Fowler made 12-of-17 from the floor, including 1-of-2 treys and one free throw on the way to 26 points.
Simons (23 points) did his damage from two places. His 5-of-9 from the field included 4-of-8 triples. He also was a perfect 9-of-9 at the free throw line -- all in the second half. Braylon Rayson also reached double figures with 14 points. Eleven came in the final period.
Another fertile source of points for CMU was turnovers. The Chippewas (23-7) outscored UT 10-1 in points off turnovers and 13-7 in fast break points.
Justin Drummond and J.D. Weatherspoon shared team-high honors for Toledo with 17 apiece. Drummond was 6-of-8 from the floor and 3-or-4 on treys. He also had two points from the charity stripe. Weatherspoon was 6-of-11 from the field, 1-of-1 on threes and 4-of-6 at the line. Julius Brown and Nathan Boothe chipped in with 13 and 11 points, respectively.
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UT held small leads twice more before Simons nailed a triple at 10:45 to put Central up 16-14. CMU then built the lead to 10 points and took a 33-26 lead into halftime.
The Chippewas expanded their lead to a game-high 17 points (46-29) by the 17:00 mark of the second half following a Fowler jumper.
Toledo was able to chip away and got within seven (53-46) with a Drummond layup at 9:59. Central Michigan managed to stop the momentum thanks, in part, to a UT foul at the other end. Simons got a Toledo player into the air and put up an off-balance shot attempt to draw three free throws. He converted all three. When Fowler followed with a layup, the Chippewas were back up by a dozen.
"We've got so many good shooters on our team that guys hve to close out hard," Simons said. "When I saw (the defender) was just glying out there, I knew if I pump-faked, I had a pretty good chance that he wasn't going to be able to stop."
Toledo got it into single digits one more time. Julius Brown’s layup at 1:19 left the Rockets down 65-57. But while the Rockets continued to score buckets at one end, Central Michigan used the foul line to score at the other.