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By Allen Moff | Staff Writer
CLEVELAND -- When Mid-American Conference men's basketball backers talked about potential title contenders throughout the 2013-14 campaign, few outside Kalamazoo were quick to mention Western Michigan.
Even after the Broncos grabbed a share of the West Division regular-season title and the top seed for the 2014 MAC Tournament, they were considered an afterthought by most fans and so-called experts. A possibility, mentioned in the next breath after probables Toledo, Buffalo and Akron.
Saturday night at Quicken Loans Arena, the Broncos officially made believers out of everyone.
Senior guard David Brown poured in 32 points as Western Michigan (23-9) methodically pulled away down the stretch to earn a 98-77 victory over the favored Rockets (27-6) in the MAC Tournament championship game and claim their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2004.
"With this group of guys we were able to overcome so many negative things, so many people not believing in us," said Brown, a fifth-year senior.
"We stuck together as a family and were able to overcome everything and win this MAC Tournament with a special group of guys. I've been here for five long, frustrating years, and it's finally here," Brown said.
The 98 points were the most ever scored in a MAC title game. In the semifinals, Western Michigan trailed Akron 34-17 at the half before rallying to win 66-60 in overtime, so the Broncos scored an astounding 147 points in the final 65 minutes of the MAC Tournament.
"We kind of rode that momentum (from the Akron comeback) into this game," said fellow fifth-year senior Shayne Whittington.
Brown himself was an afterthought when it came to the MAC Player of the Year voting. Despite leading the conference in scoring at 19 points per game, Brown finished a distant second to Buffalo senior forward Javon McCrea with just three votes -- 17 less than McCrea.
On Saturday, Brown had plenty of help. Whittington, a 6-foot-11 center, scored 20 points and grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds, freshman forward Tucker Haymond piled up 21 points and nine rebounds, and sophomore forward Connar Tava added 13 points as WMU's starters scored 90 of those 98 points.
Senior guard Rian Pearson and junior guard Juice Brown scored 22 points each for the Rockets, but both shot just 7-of-18 from the field. Toledo went cold in the second half, shooting 35 percent from the field and 13 percent from 3, while the Broncos shot a blazing 68 percent from the field and buried 4-of-6 3-pointers.
The Broncos also dominated the boards, out-rebounding the Rockets 46-27.
Western Michigan led 42-40 at halftime, then Tava hit a layup and a 3 to open the second half. A 3-pointer and a layup by Brown pushed the WMU lead to 61-53, and the Broncos never let up. A layup by Brown made it 76-65 with 5:30 remaining, and the cushion stayed in double digits the rest of the way.
"We call ourselves dogs from the pound," said 11th-year WMU coach Steve Hawkins. "We're not always the prettiest-looking team out there, but we find a way to do it. Very gritty, tough. I'm just so proud of our guys."
The Broncos receive the MAC's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, while the Rockets are clinging to a shred of hope that they'll receive an at-large bid when pairings are announced tonight.
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