2014 MAC Women's Basketball Tournament: Championship Saturday Preview

Mark A. Cunningham

Ball State and Akron upset the MAC's top two teams yesterday. Today, they battle for a championship. Ball State won their only MAC title in five years ago. Akron's never won a MAC championship. Who will prevail today?

The 2014 Mid-American Conference Women's Basketball Tournament has arrived at the championship game, and we have two (relatively) surprising participants.  In yesterday's semi-finals, the Akron Zips and Ball State Cardinals slayed the top two seeds, Bowling Green and Central Michigan.  BGSU and CMU had won 31 of their 32 regular season games against the rest of the MAC but could not manage to win a tournament game.  Now, the Zips and Cardinals seek to fill the void.

Akron and Ball State have combined to win one of the previous 32 MAC women's tournament championships and have appeared in a total of just five championship games.  Ball State lost in 2002, 2003 and 2007 before finally breaking through with a MAC championship in 2009.  Akron's loss to Central Michigan in last year's MAC final was their first title game appearance in school history.

Today's game begins at 1:00 p.m. EST and will be broadcast live on Time Warner Cable Sports Channel.  It will be available (but subject to blackout) online at ESPN3.com and on the Watch ESPN application.  It can also be streamed live (and free of charge) at mac-sports.com.

2014 MAC Women's Basketball Tournament

#3 Akron Zips vs. #5 Ball State Cardinals (1:00 p.m. EST)

Previous meetings:

Jan 4th at Akron -- Zips d. Cardinals, 87-78

Feb. 15th at Ball State -- Zips d. Cardinals, 87-64

These two teams played twice during the regular season, and given the results of those two games, Akron should enter today's game with a lot of confidence.  In the first game, they built a 22-point lead in the second half and were never seriously threatened late in the game.  The rematch in Muncie was even more lopsided.  The Zips doubled up Ball State's point total in the first half, then led by as much as 33 in the second before cruising to a 23-point win.

There were several issues for the Cardinals in those two games.  During the first, they were out-rebounded 39-26 and out-hustled in transition.  Despite getting more turnovers (20) than they gave away (19), they were out-scored 17-7 in points off those turnovers.  These two factors nullified BSU's 10-3 edge in 3-pointers.  Shooting was a big part of the problem in the game in Muncie.  Where Ball State had the 10-3 edge in threes in the first game, they were out-gunned beyond the arc 10-4 in the second.  Akron held a 47.5-32.8 percent shooting advantage, and that prevented the Cardinals from ever getting any traction in the game.

Beyond that, Ball State did not appear to have the consistent go-to players that the team could go through at the most difficult times.  In the two regular season meetings, only Brittany Carter and Nathalie Fontaine averaged more than 10 points, and no Cardinals' player scored in double figures in both.  Akron, on the other hand, had four players who scored in double figures during both meetings.  Obviously, that includes Rachel Tecca and Hanna Luburgh, who combined to average 36 points, 18 rebounds and three assists.  Kacie Cassell complemented those efforts by dishing out 11 assists in one game and four in the other while scoring 13 in each.

However, this has changed during the tournament.  Nathalie Fontaine has scored 21, 17, 17 and 10 in the four tournament games.  Shelbie Justice has added 12, 8, 15 and 21 points, and she's sank at least three 3-pointers in three of the four games, including five yesterday against Bowling Green.  Finally, Brandy Woody has scored at least 12 points in each of the last three games, 42 in total.  If the Cardinals can get balanced scoring from these players, it will go a long way to narrowing the gap with Akron.

The biggest concern here might be fatigue.  It could be argued that it will be felt on Akron's side, but the issue will be of particular importance for the Cardinal bench.  This will be Ball State's fourth game in four days and sixth in their last eight.  Fatigue certainly didn't seem to be an issue against Bowling Green, but how much longer can these players go?  Just 40 minutes or left, but it's an issue that bears watching.

Akron has to be the clear favorite here, but Ball State is white-hot right now.  If they can drill some early 3-pointers today as they did yesterday against Bowling Green, the Cardinals could end up as MAC champions.

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Here's the official 2014 MAC Women's Basketball Tournament bracket:

ROUND SEED TEAM VS. SEED TEAM
1st 5 Ball State 73
vs. 12 Kent State 38
1st 8 Eastern Michigan 76
vs. 9 Northern Illinois 81
1st 7 Western Michigan 82
vs. 10 Miami 72
1st 6 Toledo 61
vs. 11 Ohio 44
ROUND SEED TEAM VS. SEED TEAM
2nd 5 Ball State 61
vs. 9 Northern Illinois 47
2nd 6 Toledo 72
vs. 7 Western Michigan 61
ROUND SEED TEAM VS. SEED TEAM
3rd 4 Buffalo 60
vs. 5 Ball State 74
3rd 3 Akron 83
vs. 6 Toledo 69
ROUND SEED TEAM VS. SEED TEAM
SF 1 Bowling Green 55
vs. 5 Ball State 73
SF 2 Central Michigan 69
vs. 3 Akron 85
ROUND SEED TEAM VS. SEED TEAM
Champ. 3 Akron
vs. 5 Ball State
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