CLEVELAND – The Mid-American Conference sure looked like the big winner Saturday after Central Michigan outgunned the University at Buffalo, 96-91, for the women's basketball championship.
In combining for 187 points, the two teams put on an exhibition of skill and athleticism indicative of two NCAA Tournament-caliber teams.
Central Michigan earned the automatic NCAA bid. UB probably, likely, by all indications, will get into the 64-team field as well as an at-large selection.
That's the way everyone was talking on a day when the Chippewas' great offense proved just a little too good for UB's great defense.
"I'm excited about this opportunity to go dance on the biggest stage," said UB coach Felisha Legette-Jack. "I think with a 27-5 record in a conference that's seventh in the country, we're ready to go do our thing."
"Oh my God, there is no doubt in my mind," said Central Michigan coach Sue Guevara of UB's at-large chances. "You look at their body of work. . . . I don't see how they can't be, I don't know how they can't be. They're one of the top 64 teams in the country."
UB will find out for sure if it's in at 7 p.m. Monday when the NCAA announces the field.
The last time the MAC got two teams in the NCAA tournament was way back in 1996. But the conference is stronger this year than at any time since. The MAC actually was eighth in women's RPI on Saturday (dropping down one spot by one-thousandth of a point). The MAC is ranked 10th in men's basketball.
The case for UB? The Bulls ranked 19 in the nation in the Ratings Percentage Index Saturday, and Central Michigan was 25. The Bulls have won 11 of their last 12. They're 3-2 in what the NCAA calls "Tier 1" games (based on opponents' RPI) and 6-1 in "Tier 2" games. They beat Nebraska, which tied for third in the Big 10 and had that conference's coach of the year. UB is 13th in the nation in defensive efficiency and 28th in the nation in scoring.
ESPN consistently has had both UB and Central Michigan in the field, regardless of which won the MAC.
Central Michigan lived up to its ranking of ninth in the nation in scoring and 14th in three-point shooting.
The Chippewas hit six three-pointers in building a 26-14 first-quarter lead and finished 12 of 22 behind the arc.
Junior guard Presley Hudson, 10th in the nation in three-point shooting, stepped back for 24- and 25-footers in the first quarter.
Asked the limit to Hudson's range, Central's Micaela Kelly said, "The bench."
Reyna Frost said, "The garage."
Presley said, "No, anywhere."
"Central Michigan always comes out very strong," said UB guard Cierra Dillard. "They throw the first punch. They surround themselves with great three-point shooters, with two bigs inside. So it's hard. Hats off to them. It's a great team."
Central's 6-foot-3 center Tinara Moore, the MAC player of the year, scored all 17 of her points in the second half, and grabbed 14 rebounds.
"I think Tinara Moore touched the ball two times in the first half, two times," Guevara said. "We kept trying to go high-low. It's like, guys, we're not going to be able to get the ball in high-low, it's got to go on the wing, that's where it has to go in. And then I thought she got a little more aggressive demanding the basketball and then finishing."
UB got only four points in 14 minutes from second-team all-MAC center Cassie Oursler. Legette-Jack said the game got a little too up-tempo and the Chippewas were bringing their power forward out too far for Oursler.
"The matchup was just too fast," Legette-Jack said. "We needed to go small ball with some people that can go laterally quicker."
UB also was hurt by the fact star point guard Stephanie Reid, who scored 15 points, sat out five minutes with a sore thumb. She returned, then missed the last five minutes after suffering a lower leg or ankle injury. ("She was walking in the locker room, so she's going to be fine," said Legette-Jack.)
Still, the Bulls rallied with some pressure defense and great shooting from Dillard, who scored 26 points. Summer Hemphill and Autumn Jones scored 13 apiece.
The Bulls trailed, 43-40, at the half, 69-61, after three quarters, and 90-80 with 53 seconds left. They pulled as close as 93-89 with 26 seconds left.
"We said in the locker room we've already played a NCAA team," Legette-Jack said. "I think Central Michigan can battle with a lot of people that's going to make the tournament. So we're tournament-ready."