CLEVELAND — The third time proved to be the charm.
After losing in heart-breaking fashion in the last two Mid-American Conference Tournament championship games, Central Michigan finally came out on top.
Micaela Kelly and Presley Hudson scored 26 points apiece, Tinara Moore and Reyna Frost had double-doubles and the Chippewas earned a berth in the NCAA Tournament with a 96-91 win over Buffalo on Saturday.
Moore, the regular-season MAC MVP, had 17 points and 14 rebounds and Frost, the tournament MVP, had 10 points and 11 boards for the Chippewas (28-4), who made 10 of 13 free throws in the final 67 seconds to ensure a different outcome. Kelly and Moore made the all-tournament team with Frost.
Cassie Breen also had 10 points as Central Michigan, in its 50th season, surpassed the 1983-84 team that finished 27-3 for most wins in school history.
The top-seeded Chippewas lost to Western Michigan by four last year and fell 73-71 on an overtime buzzer-beater to Buffalo in 2016. Central Michigan avenged that 2016 title game loss and its last loss in the regular season in making its first NCAA Tournament since 2013. The Chippewas have won eight straight since an 85-82 setback in Buffalo, their only conference loss, and they have won 20 of their last 21.
Cierra Dillard had 26 points and 10 assists for the second-seeded Bulls (27-5), who had won 11 straight since losing to Central Michigan in the first meeting. Stephanie Reid scored 15 points and Summer Hemphill and Autumn Jones added 13 apiece. Dillard and Reid made the all-tournament team.
Central Michigan, led by Kelly’s five, went 12 of 22 on 3-pointers and shot 54 percent (30 of 56) overall. Buffalo had 11 3s but shot just 40.5 percent overall (30 of 74). The Bulls were 20 of 26 from the line to 24 of 32 for CMU. Central Michigan had a 44-34 rebound advantage but turned the ball over 27 times. Buffalo, which had a season-low five turnovers, got 24 points off CMU’s miscues.
Ten straight points that turned into a 16-2 run gave Central Michigan a 20-7 lead on a Breen 3-pointer with 3:10 left in the first quarter. Hudson’s 3 made it 26-14 after one.
Buffalo had nine straight points with four different scorers in the middle of a 17-4 run that tied the game at 37. Dillard tied it with her second 3 and hit another for a 40-39 lead in the final minute but Central Michigan led 43-40 at the half.
Kelly, a freshman, had back-to-back 3-pointers early in the second half and the lead reached 66-56 late in the third quarter as Moore had a basket and two free throws.
The Chippewas led by 11 with 3½ minutes to play but the Bulls got within six two minutes later before the free throw parade began.