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Akron Zips vs. Western Michigan Broncos Final: Zips battle adversity, win thriller against Western Michigan

It was a thriller in Kalamazoo as Akron and Western Michigan battled until the games' closing seconds.

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Steve Hawkins and Keith Dambrot have seen a lot of each other. They're the longest-tenured coaches in the MAC and have always had competitive teams. While the first game was a little surprising (an Akron 20-point victory), it wasn't all that shocking considering most of the Akron players remember losing to Western Michigan in last year's MAC Tournament.

That took us to today's game between the two teams, where Akron fought through some adversity to gut out a huge 71-69 victory in University Arena. The final result is huge for seeding purposes as these two teams are likely to wind up as top-four seeds and the tiebreaker could come into place.

Injuries played a big part coming into this game as Jake Kretzer and Pat Forsythe were out for Akron while Austin Richie didn't dress for the Broncos. Forsythe may have been the biggest loss going into the game as it left the Zips with only one true big man in Isaiah Johnson.

Down two starters and coming off a deflating loss at Northern Illinois, you would imagine that Akron would be in big trouble heading into MAC West Division leaders Western Michigan. If that wasn't enough for the Zips to worry about, the problems compounded when Forsythe's replacement, Johnson, picked up two quick fouls in the game's first four minutes. The adversity was building and it looked early on like the Zips weren't going to be able to handle it.

But, that didn't happen. Akron came out firing from two three-pointers by Aaron Jackson and Reggie McAdams. A 7-3 mid-half run put the Zips up 16-10 and Western Michigan looked sluggish. The Broncos battled back to tie the score at 16 and kept it close until late in the half. Akron built up another six point lead at 36-30 with just under two minutes left in the half, but Western Michigan answered with a 5-1 run to bring the half to a close.

The surprise of the first half came from WMU's Taylor Perry. Perry averages 1.5 points per game but had ten first-half points - a career high. Noted Akron-killer Tucker Haymond had a strong half with seven points, and David Brown followed him up with six.

Akron had about as balanced of a scoring effort as you can get. The Zips had four players score five points or more, led by Noah Robotham's seven. The free throw line, usually a week point for the Zips, was pretty good to them in the first half as Akron went 7-10. Rebounding was another big key to the game, and Akron won the first half rebounding battle 19-14. The only real negative thing about the first half for Akron was the foul situation - both Johnson and Deji Ibitayo picked up three fouls and Nyles Evans had two.

The second half was as tight as tight can be, with no team holding a lead of more than four. That changed with 6:25 left in the game, as Aaron Jackson hit a huge three pointer to put the Zips up six at 63-57. Akron had a couple of chances to push the lead out even more, but had two turnovers back-to-back. But, Western Michigan only capitalized on one of them.

A technical foul on Antino Jackson with the Zips back up six looked to spring the Broncos back into the game. The technical came after a personal foul on him, and gave David Brown four free throws. Brown hit three of them, and after a Robotham missed three Thomas Wilder scored to cut the lead to just one.

A Brown layup with 2:43 to go gave the Broncos back the lead. Kwan Cheatham hit two free throws on the next possession, and a couple possessions later Drake LaMont nailed a nice put-back after Brown missed a lay-up. Cheatham then attempted a three but was off, and Johnson rebounded it. Johnson was fouled by LaMont - his fifth - and calmly knocked down both shots to put the Zips up one.

Haymond was fouled on the next WMU possession by B.J. Gladden, but only was able to make one of two freebies. Out of an Akron timeout, Johnson was fouled again and once more knocked down both free throws to put the Zips up two. WMU had two looks at the basket as time was expiring but couldn't get one to fall, and the Zips finally breathed a sigh of relief.

Perry was the star for the Broncos, putting up a career day with 17 points and five rebounds. Haymond had a solid outing scoring 14, but was just 2-3 from beyond the arc. Akron did a good job defensively on both Brown and Tava, holding them to 13 and nine points, respectively.

Johnson scored a career-high 16 points to go along with eight rebounds. A 55% free throw shooter on the season, Johnson delivered from the line today going 6-8 and hitting those clutch tosses to win the game. Without Pat Forsythe, "Big Dog" stepped up in a huge way, and a performance like this pays dividends later on in the season.

Robotham had another solid game, scoring 12 points and collecting six rebounds. McAdams and Cheatham both had nine. The Zips were  a cool 14-18 from the free throw line and went 7-8 in the second half. The game was probably won from the charity stripe, as Western Michigan made 14 free throws as well, but attempted 27.

Western Michigan will have a chance to rebound from this loss with a game next Tuesday at Buffalo. The Bulls will certainly be looking for revenge after the Broncos beat them pretty handily in Kalamazoo. While a two-game losing streak in conference play isn't ideal, it's something that WMU will want to avoid. After the Buffalo game is another roadie at Eastern Michigan, which is never easy.

Akron meanwhile can build on their huge road victory at home against reeling Ball State. That one will be sure to be an emotional one as the Zips are putting on a "Purple Out" to raise awareness about pancreatic cancer.

Game Leaders

Points T. Perry (17) I. Johnson (16)
Rebounds D. LaMont (7) I. Johnson (8)
Assists T. Wilder (4) N. Robotham (3)
Blocks T. Perry (2) K. Cheatham (1)
Steals T. Perry (2) B. Gladden (1)