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HUTTON: Austin Richie riding with Broncos to Tournament

Western Michigan's AustRichie (22) tries make layup over Bowling Green's Richaun Holmes right during their NCAA college basketball game Sunday

Western Michigan's Austin Richie (22) tries to make a layup over Bowling Green's Richaun Holmes, right, during their NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014, at the University Arena in Kalamazoo, Mich. WMU lost 64-69. (AP Photo/The Gazette, Junfu Han) ALL LOCAL TV OUT; LOCAL TV INTERNET OUT. ORG XMIT: MIKAL303

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Updated: April 19, 2014 6:28AM



Austin Richie, gun slinger.

That’s how Richie, the quintessential Indiana jump shooter, son of a basketball coach, left Lowell three years ago. He scored 50 points in a game once. He averaged 33.2 ppg. his senior year. He shot 95 percent from the free-throw line his senior year. His sophomore year, he made an eye popping 48 percent of his 3-point shots.

Richie’s game has changed and he couldn’t be happier. He’s a pure point guard for Western Michigan. He distributes and handles the ball. He defers to David Brown and Shayne Whittington, two redshirt seniors who lead the team in scoring.

And now he can add NCAA point guard to his resume. Richie’s most eye popping stat is his minutes played (33.2) and his ball handling skills (only 42 turnovers in 32 games). His role has changed but he’s content.

“Listen, I have two first team (MAC players) to get the ball to,” he said. “It’s something I’ve been asked to do. I can do it. I do have quite a bit of freedom. It’s fine.”

The Broncos clinched an NCAA bid on Saturday with a 98-77 victory over Toledo for the Mid-American Conference tournament title.

It was good stuff for Richie and the program. They haven’t played an NCAA game since 2004 when they were defeated by Vanderbilt in the first round. The Broncos have made only four trips to the NCAA in their history. They won one time — in 1998, the same year that Valparaiso University was Cinderella after upsetting Ole Miss and Florida State.

WMU made the tournament in a most unexpected way.

Three of the key players that were on the team when Richie arrived transferred.

Matt Stainbrook, a 6-10 center who averaged 11.4 points and 6.8 rebounds in 2011-2012, transferred to Xavier.

Darius Paul, the MAC freshman of the year last season after averaging 10.4 points and 5.7 rebounds, left for Illinois.

And Juan Howard Jr. left after the 2011 season. He averaged 9.3 points per game.

Those holes were supposed to be too massive for WMU to fill.

Like any Division I player, Richie had set a goal of getting to the tournament. That goal seemed farfetched at the beginning of the season.

“I thought I’d have a chance to get to the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “How we got there this year is a whole different story.”

The Broncos started to feel good about the year after they beat Toledo in the conference opener. The Rockets had just lost to Kansas by 10 points the game before. They had struggled through the nonconference part of their schedule, finishing 7-5. The 10-point victory over Toledo was a confidence booster.

“That’s where we said, “We can do this,” Richie said.

And they did, running off eight straight victories. They didn’t lose a game in February.

WMU shared first place with Toledo but took the No. 1 seed in the tournament because of its win over the Rockets.

The victory over the Rockets in the finals was easy.

The Broncos’ win over Akron in the semifinals was a classic.

WMU trailed by 17 at halftime and by 13 with 9:30 left.

They rallied with an 18-0 spurt.

“It wasn’t a typical 18-0 run,” Richie said. “We really grinded it out on defense.”

The gift for Western now is a date against No. 3 seed Syracuse in Orange country. The game is Thursday at 1:45 CST at the Niagra Center in Buffalo.

WMU hopes it can solve the long reach of the Syracuse zone. Rob Evans, the coach at Eastern Michigan, was a Jim Boeheim protégé. They play just like the Orange on defense.

“We’ve watched lots of Syracuse clips,” Richie said. “It’s probably a whole different animal.”

It’s wishful thinking to believe that EMU is a reasonable test case for Syracuse.

But this is the season for dreamers and schemers. There is always a chance.

Heck, Richie might just be able to find some nice creases in that zone and fire away, just like high school, when the light was always green for him.



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