By Alan Gerould, Senior Writer, BroncoBlitz
KALAMAZOO -- Western Michigan University men's basketball squad extended its winning streak to eight games with a hard fought win over Marcus Keene, Braylon Rayson and whatever three other guys in maroon that Central Michigan had on the floor at any given time on Friday 88-80. The streak matches the 2013-14 team (14-4) that won eight in a row and is the longest since the 2003-04 team (15-3) won ten in a row. Both of those teams went on to win the Mid-American Conference tournament and an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.
The Broncos are easily the hottest team in the MAC right now, going 9-1 in their last ten games after a 2-6 start in conference play and being left for dead by most everyone.
"We knew that we were a lot better than what our record indicated," lone senior Tucker Haymond said. "We just had gotten away from playing Bronco basketball, specifically defense. Once we started bearing down on defense we started getting positive results."
Haymond's career was celebrated prior to the game Friday with his family and girlfriend prior to the tip and he was recognized again as he was subbed for with seconds left. Haymond assumed the "push up" position and kissed the center court block W and walked off to a thunderous applause by the 4,193 happy Bronco fans that had turned out to thank him for his four years in a Bronco uniform. Haymond had no way of knowing that this would not be his last game at University Arena.
Despite having the second best record in the entire MAC at 11-7 (Akron is 14-4) there are three other teams with that same record (Ball State, Buffalo and Ohio). Only four teams are given first round byes into the quarter finals that begin on Thursday at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. The Broncos were the odd team out due to a complicated tie break system that had them pulling for Kent State to beat Akron late on Friday. The Zips won, meaning that the Broncos will host the #12 seed Miami (OH) in the first round.
The Broncos beat Miami back on February 7th 72-55. That was the night that the rest of the MAC learned about freshman Reggie Jones who made a splash with 26 points. Reggie wont even turn 19 until this coming week. This was important because both Wilder and Haymond struggled offensively and WMU demonstrated that they had other weapons in its arsenal. Sophomore center Seth Dugan had 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting to compliment Jones.
"I didn't really care either way," junior Thomas Wilder, the Broncos leading scorer and along with Haymond the team's leader said. "We are having fun right now and we just want to play basketball. The sooner we can get back out there the better. We just don't want our season to end."
The harsh reality is that the Broncos season will end with its next loss as the Brown and Gold are unlikely to get a post season bid with a .500 record (15-15). A win over the Redhawks will assure the Broncos of at least a break even season, which would have been considered a long shot by anyone looking at it's 6-14 record before the win over Ohio on January 31, a game in which WMU trailed by as many as 21 before turning the season around.
"I knew that we were capable of beating anyone in this conference," Broncos head coach Steve Hawkins has said on multiple occasions. "What people have to remember is that in addition to playing the #1 and #2 team (Villanova and UCLA) in the nation, we also played Washington of the PAC12, UNC Wilmington, Boise State and Oakland that each won its conference and Akron (twice), Ohio (twice) and Buffalo the top three teams in the MAC East and we did it with eight freshman. Yes there is going to be a learning curve, but those pups are all D-1 college players now."
Friday, in front of the largest crowd of the year, the Broncos avenged its only loss during its 10-game run, an 86-82 loss to the Chips over a month ago in Mt. Pleasant. WMU would have none of that during the regular season finale. Keene, 37 points and Rayson 26 points, the top two scorers in the league, showed why on Friday; They are the top two shooters. The two combined for 54 shots, just 10 fewer than the 12 players combined, that saw the floor for WMU.
Selfishly, I am happy for one more game this season at University Arena. I have been covering this team since 2002 and following them since 1962. This is one of the most entertaining Bronco teams to watch, because as much as you know what you are going to get from Haymond and Wilder you just never know on any given night which of the other 9 to 10 guys will hit the big three or block a shot, get a steal, force a turnover, make a great assist, rip down a rebound or shake up the place with a thunderous slam-dunk at a critical time...they have all contributed in one way or another. Right now lets all celebrate the next possession. I know this group of Broncos will. Fight On!