Andy Sneddon, CMUChippewas.com
CLEVELAND -- There were hugs and tears and high-fives, a load of confetti slowly drifted down from the ceiling, and the ol' championship standard, Queen's `We Are The Champions' played over the Quicken Loans Arena sound system.
It was a celebration years in the making. The greater the struggle, the sweeter the reward.
And this was oh so sweet for Central Michigan women's basketball. The Chippewas finally earned the right to cut down the nets in Quicken Loans Arena, holding off hard-charging Buffalo, 96-91, on Saturday to win the Mid-American Conference Tournament for the first time since 2013.
At long last the Chippewas reached the pinnacle in laying claim to the champion's right, an NCAA Tournament berth. They pulled off the double, adding the tourney crown to their regular-season league championship.
"It tastes very sweet," CMU junior guard Presley Hudson said. "It's an amazing feeling because we've worked so hard for this. This has been our goal since we've gotten here, so to be able to accomplish it, it's just amazing."
And it was a classic showdown befitting a matchup of the top-seeded Chippewas and the second-seeded Bulls, who in 2016 broke the hearts of the Chippewas with an overtime buzzer beater-beater in the tourney final.
Last year, after winning the regular-season crown, the Chippewas were upset by rival Western Michigan in a tournament quarterfinal.
"This is the sweetest thing that I've had in a while, this is amazing," said senior Cassie Breen as she clutched the tournament championship trophy while watching her teammates and coaches snip the nets. "Losing to Western, losing to (Buffalo) my sophomore year, knowing how great we are as a team and coming back here and showing how good we are.
"We had some bumps, we had some trip-ups in the game, but you know what? We finished strong. People were coming up to me and saying that they could see it in my face that we weren't going to lose this; and that's the demeanor that I wanted. I've wanted this and our team has wanted this for so long."
But 2017-18 belonged to the Chippewas from the get-go as they were picked to win in the MAC in the preseason poll and they proved they are one of the very best mid-major programs in the country, rising to sixth in the CollegeInsider.com Top 25. Their 28th victory (against four losses) is a program record.
It was CMU's second MAC Tournament title under 11th-year coach Sue Guevara. CMU will find out its NCAA Tournament destination and first-round opponent on ESPN's Selection Show on Monday (7 p.m.). A watch party beginning at 6 p.m. is scheduled for Hunter's Ale House in Mount Pleasant.
The Chippewas earned it -- every bit of it -- by outlasting an inspired Buffalo team that kept coming despite a double-digit deficit. The game played out very much like CMU's quarterfinal victory over Eastern Michigan on Wednesday and its semifinal win on Friday over Miami (Ohio).
CMU led by as many as 14 points in the fourth quarter before Buffalo (27-5) twice crept as close as four points, the last with 14 seconds to play. Presley Hudson hit a free throw with 10 seconds remaining, and Buffalo missed a 3-point try with 5 seconds left.
Hudson rebounded, and the celebration was on.
"That was one heck of a basketball game," Guevara said. "You just saw the two best teams in our league going at each other and giving it everything they had. The winner of this game was really going to have to display some toughness, and that was going after every loose ball, rebounding, finishing the play."
The Chippewas dogpiled at center court while Guevara and her coaching staff gathered in a prolonged and emotional group hug in front of the Chippewa bench.
"I go back to, way back in November, when we were picked (first)," Guevara said. "The expectations were so high and I guess everybody kept talking about, `Do you feel the stress? Do you feel the pressure?
"We didn't talk about that. We never did. I think this is the first time I've ever been a part of that. They bought the Kool-Aid and they kept drinking it from way back then. ... For what we did, for what this team accomplished today, I can't say enough about them. I really can't. I love this team and I'm just so grateful to be the head coach here at Central Michigan."
CMU's Reyna Frost was named the tournament most valuable player and was joined on the all-tournament team by teammates Tinara Moore and Micaela Kelly. Buffalo's Stephanie Reid and Cierra Dillard rounded out the five-member team.
Kelly and Hudson scored 26 points apiece and finished a combined 8 for 14 from 3-point range. Frost had 10 points and 11 rebounds, her third double-double of the tournament and 16th of the season. Moore had 17 points and 14 rebounds.
Dillard finished with 26 points and Reid had 15.
COMING UP BIG
Hudson turned in her best performance in CMU's three tournament games. And she did it while being defended by Reid, a tenacious senior guard who was injured with about five minutes remaining and did not return.
Guevara said in her press conference after CMU's 61-58 semifinal win over Miami on Friday that Hudson had been pressing. She was defended by another tenacious, quick and athletic guard, Lauren Dickerson, in CMU's win over Miami.
"I'm expected to get that, so I kind of just prepare for it in practice," Hudson said. "Basically it's just me being able to be mentally tough throughout the whole game; just sticking to it and staying focused."
The Chippewas made 12 of their 22 3-point tries and were 24 for 32 from the free throw line. Kelly, a redshirt freshman, finished 5 of 6 from 3-point range and her 26 points was a career high. The Chippewas outrebounded the Bulls, 44-34.
Hudson and Kelly combined for 52 points on 13 of 27 shooting.
"This is March," Guevara said. "March is all about guard play."
Frost became the third Chippewa, after Crystal Bradford (2013) and LaTanga Cox (1984), to earned the MAC Tournament MVP Award. Frost averaged 16.3 points and 13.3 rebounds in CMU's three games. She had a double-double in all games, and made 22 of her 39 field goal attempts and was 11 for 14 from the free throw line.
"I thank my teammates and my coaches for giving me that award and getting me to this point, preparing me for these games," Frost said.
Guevara said that while the Chippewas are thrilled to have won the league tournament and reached the NCAA Tourney, the goal is to win.
"I don't want to do the two-step: One step in, one step out," said Guevara, who added that Buffalo is very much deserving of an at-large NCAA bid. "I want to cha-cha a little bit. We want to go and show people that the MAC is a very, very good conference and we have good coaches in this league.
"Every night, day in and day out, it's a dogfight and I think that's a credit to all the coaches that are in the Mid-American Conference."
OFFICIAL CMU CHAMPIONSHIP GEAR
Fans can go online to purchase official Central Michigan women's basketball championship gear from the CMU Athletics Shop.