The first season of the John Cooper era at Miami University is officially in the books.
Cooper’s RedHawks completed a 9-22 campaign Wednesday night with a 58-47 loss to Eastern Michigan in the second round of the Mid-American Conference men’s basketball tournament at Quicken Loans Arena.
Will Felder and Jon Harris led the way with 14 points apiece as 11th-seeded MU committed 20 turnovers and shot just 35.0 percent from the floor, losing for the 14th time in the last 16 games.
“I think what you saw tonight in many ways was who we were,” Cooper said. “Now do you want to admit that as a coach? No, but that’s who we were. I think you’ve seen through various points of the season where we’d go through scoring droughts. That puts a lot of pressure on your defense.
“Then of course we had games where we turned the ball over entirely too much. In fact, some of the turnovers make you go, ‘Wow.’ You sit back and you look at yourself and you wonder what’s going on.
“Having said that, that was that. Would you want to change it? Yes, but it wasn’t something that we didn’t continue to work on. There’s a reason why we go out and recruit. This group in my opinion was very good at trying to do what we asked. Not one time did this group look at us like we had horns in our head. They tried to do everything we asked them to do, so that’s all you can ask.”
Vince Legarza, the RedHawks’ lone senior, ended his career by scoring two points. He hit his only shot, adding an assist and a steal in 16 minutes.
Legarza, a 6-foot-9 center, broke down in the postgame press conference as he reflected on his five years in Oxford.
“I’m really thankful for my time at Miami and all the different people that I got to meet and play with and play for,” Legarza said. “I’ll forever be grateful for the opportunity and always be proud to see that Miami M and follow these guys into the future. I’m so excited for the guys that are going to be around and coming in because they’re going to get it going, and it’s going to be a great thing for alumni and guys that have played here to watch.”
Cooper said he’s looking forward to maintaining a relationship with Legarza.
“Vince Legarza is a hell of a person,” Cooper said. “To me, at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about. I probably shouldn’t say this, but once he’s out of school, I can’t wait to sit down and have a cold beer with him and just laugh and talk.”
Wednesday’s game was ugly in a lot of ways, and not just on MU’s end. Not known for its offensive prowess, Eastern didn’t shoot particularly well (43.2) and racked up 16 turnovers, but the Eagles’ 2-3 zone defense was in fine form.
“Defensively, I thought we were really good,” EMU coach Rob Murphy said. “We’ve bought into the defensive side of the ball all year. I think coming into postseason play, the main difference has been (7-foot) Da’Shonte Riley. He’s been super active, and he’s not allowed the ball to be thrown into the post. He’s blocked shots. He’s altered shots. He’s gotten steals. Anytime he’s playing that aggressively on defense, that makes it tough for anybody to score on us inside.”
Riley collected 10 points, nine rebounds, four steals and three blocked shots for Eastern. Derek Thompson (14 points, five assists, four boards), Daylen Harrison (11 points, five caroms) and Glenn Bryant (10 points) also scored in double figures for the seventh-seeded Eagles (16-17).
EMU trailed 10-5 midway through the first half, which says something about the type of game this was. Eastern led 28-25 at halftime after Thompson buried a trey just before the buzzer, then started the second half with a 12-4 spurt.
The RedHawks were never really in the contest from there.
“Their size bothers us,” Cooper said. “Even if you get past the first wave of the zone, you still have to deal with the size. One of the things about playing against the zone is you have to play inside out, but you also have to be able to step up and make shots. That’s not necessarily a strength of ours.”
Some of Miami’s turnovers were caused by the Eagles. Some were just passes to nobody.
“Just throwing the ball away without any type of defense on us — things like that definitely hurt us down the line, and it did tonight,” Felder said. “We had a little bit of trouble with size. We’ve got to understand how to work against it.”
Said Legarza, “I wouldn’t question any of our guys’ effort tonight. Their zone was frustrating, and we couldn’t really get anything going against it.”
EMU. a 65-58 winner over MU on Jan. 19, advances to play No. 3 Western Michigan on Thursday night. Miami, meanwhile, will move into the offseason with a lot of question marks.
“It gives us a lot of motivation,” Felder said of having the most losses in school history (excluding the 1988-89 forfeit year). “We’ve been through it all this season. I think we’ll be a lot smarter team next year.”