The Western Michigan University men’s basketball team overcame a slow start and defeated visiting North Dakota State, 72-71, in overtime Wednesday night at University Arena in the first round of the College Basketball Invitational.
With the win, the Broncos advance to play Wyoming on Monday.
After a back and forth game in which both teams held double digit leads at one point, Connor Tava was able to make the game-winning free throws with 13 seconds to play in the extra period.
Four Broncos scored in double digits. Shayne Whittington had 18 points and Tava recorded 10 points and six rebounds. Brandon Pokley scored 15 and David Brown added 12 off the bench.
TrayVonn Wright was a force for the Bison, scoring a game-high 23 points and grabbing eight rebounds. Lawrence Alexander scored 19 points in 44 minutes of action.
The Broncos shot over 48 percent from the field in the second half after shooting only 32 percent in the first. They converted 14 Bison turnovers into 25 points and got to the line 26 times to make 20 free throws.
WMU struggled out of the gate as they saw the Bison run off with an early 15-2 lead. The players said the lack of experience in the postseason may have been a factor in the beginning of the game.
“It was a little bit of a different feeling to begin with, with not a lot of guys playing in the postseason,” Pokley said.
“We had to get our feet wet a little bit.”
The Broncos did just that and they made a strong push at the end of the half as they narrowed the Bison lead down to four to make it 28-32 at halftime.
Pokley said they just had to get back to playing Bronco basketball.
“We always just go after the principles we were taught earlier in the year, defense and rebounding,” he said.
“[We knew] if we could just play hard and rebound the ball and everybody just takes care of their own job, we have a pretty good chance of winning.”
The Broncos took their first lead of the game with 11:45 remaining in the second half. Tava stole the ball, raced to the rack and finished strong as he was awarded the hoop and the harm to make it 44-43.
WMU extended its lead to 11 at 58-47 with 4:24 left in regulation after Brown nailed a three.
The Broncos looked to have it sealed as they were up 60-52 with 1:40 to go, but the Bison went on a late run.
Back-to-back threes by Taylor and Wright got the Bison back to within two at 62-60, and after the Broncos failed to make a basket at the other end, the Bison got the ball back with 20 seconds remaining.
Wright rebounded the ball off a Taylor Braun miss and he sunk an open jumper with just two seconds on the clock. WMU’s Brown inbounded the ball and threw up a half-court shot that fell short.
The Bison started the extra period on a 7-2 run to make it 69-64. Two free throws by Hutcheson and a dunk by Whittington got the Broncos to within three at 68-71.
Tava hit a tough layup and was fouled and had an opportunity to tie the game at 71-71, but he missed the free throw.
The Bison turned the ball over and Taylor Braun committed a loose ball foul that would send Tava to the line once again.
Tava played a huge role off the bench for the Broncos. He was active all night and made several huge plays on loose balls throughout the game. It only made sense that he had the opportunity to win the game at the line in the waning seconds of overtime.
Coach Steve Hawkins had no doubt that Tava would be able to deliver the most important points of the Bronco’s season.
“All I want is my toughest kid with the ball in his hands,” Hawkins said about late-game free throw situations.
“Connar [Tava] is one of the toughest kids we have. He’s not a great free throw shooter, but when it was right there at the end, he hit the two that really mattered.”
The Bison had one last chance to win the game, but Braun failed on his two attempts as the buzzer sounded and the Bronco players pumped their fists and yelled in celebration at half court.
It was evident that even though the Broncos may not be competing for a national championship, the tournament still means a lot to the team. They will do everything it takes to keep the season going. This Bronco team shares a level of excitement and chemistry that the basketball program at WMU hasn’t seen in awhile.
“If anybody was thinking the CBI, the CIT or the NIT doesn’t mean something to these kids or coaches, you got an eye full of it tonight, because it does,” Hawkins said.
“These were two teams that really got after each other, and it went all the way down to the wire.”