YPSILANTI, Mich. -- Jordan Bitzer scored a team-high 18 points and Robbie Harman added 14 as the Central Michigan men's basketball team held on for a 56-55 victory over Eastern Michigan at the Convocation Center on Thursday to claim the program's second-consecutive West Division crown and a bye through to the quarterfinals in next week's Mid-American Conference Tournament.
A free throw by Jalin Thomas with 44 seconds left gave the Chippewas (15-14, 9-7 MAC) a one-point lead, and neither team would crack the scoring column the rest of the way. A halfcourt three by the Eagles' (16-14, 8-8 MAC) Jay Higgins at the buzzer was off the mark, causing an eruption of celebration from the Chippewas' bench.
"When we took over this program, we were like a Billy Ocean song, we were a one-hit wonder," head coach Ernie Zeigler said. "We would win and then go to last. It was worst-to-first. There has never been a level of competitiveness. I am just so elated with what we are doing. I just hope people in the community understand what we are doing because it is something special. We are champions."
CMU led by as many as seven late in the first half, but a three in the final seconds by EMU's Carlos Medlock drug the Eagles to within four just before the break, 30-26.
The Eagles tied the game at 33 and the two teams traded baskets until the 10:50 mark, when Bitzer's three put the Chippewas back up by seven, 45-38.
A 7-0 run would knot the game up at 45 with 6:04 remaining, and Eastern Michigan sprinted out for a 55-50 lead with 2:32 left, but would fail to score a single point the rest of the way. A three by Harman tied the game at 55 with 1:17 left and Thomas' free throw produced the final margin.
"The challenge was to get as many stops as we could down the stretch and we achieved perfection," Zeigler said. "Even though we were down, we still had intensity on defense and made stops which led to our victory."
Both teams had chances at the free throw line in the final moments, but neither were able to connect from the stripe.
The Chippewas shot 50 percent in the second half to finish at 40 percent in the game, including a 40 percent clip from long range (10-for-25). The Eagles shot 43 percent from the floor but just 29 percent from deep (5-for-17). CMU narrowly edged EMU on the glass, 32-31.
Medlock finished with a game-high 27 for EMU.
Bitzer connected on five of his last six shots and snared seven boards, a total matched by William McClure for the team lead. Harman added eight assists to his solid offensive effort, which included four threes to give him 101 on the season.
It's the first time the Chippewas have won back-to-back division titles since the league shifted to divisions in 1997-98. The 15 wins are the most since the 2002-03 MAC Championship campaign.
"We are going to enjoy this moment but we understand there is some unfinished business," Zeigler said. "We have our sights set on Cleveland and hopefully we can build on this win."
CMU will face the winner of the No. 7/No. 10 game in the quarterfinals of the MAC Tournament on March 11 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.