Kent State and Akron always play the last game of the season every year, usually on national TV. Normally, both teams are in the hunt for a MAC East title and the MAC Tournament implications are always an important subplot to the best rivalry in the conference.
Tonight was not supposed to be one of those times.
Kent State came in the hot team, riding some momentum from winning five games from seven. They came into tonight with a shot at the East Division title depending on if they won and how the Buffalo-Bowling Green game fared. Akron meanwhile was bruised and slumping, losers of five of their last six and without starting center and leading scorer Pat Forsythe.
The Flashes rode a strong first half performance from senior Derek Jackson and did just enough in the second half to eke out a wild 79-77 victory over the rival Zips at the M.A.C. Center. With the win, the Flashes locked up the third seed in the MAC Tournament and do not yet know who their opponent will be in the quarterfinals.
Akron did show life in the beginning of the game, coming out shooting 60% from the field and hitting two three-pointers before the first media timeout. Unfortunately for the Zips, Kent State was just as good as both Jackson and Devareaux Manley answered Akron's makes.
The Flashes exploded on an 8-0 run in the next four minutes to push the lead to 18-10. While it looked like this would be the part of the game where Akron would start to wither away, the Zips held strong and matched the Flashes basket-for-basket for the most part for the rest of the half.
Kwan Cheatham was the guy that kept Akron in it, scoring twelve points on 5-8 shooting from the field including two three-pointers. The Zips got to the free throw line just four times during the first half, and only made two of them.
Kent State capitalized on Akron not having Forsythe to guard the paint. They drove the lane and got to the free throw line, where they went an impressive 8-9. Jackson had 19 first half points and six of them came from the line. That also put Akron's one true big man (Isaiah Johnson) in foul trouble, and without another reliable center the Zips struggled in the paint.
The second half was a game of runs. Akron closed the eight point halftime deficit to just one at 49-48 in a little over seven minutes. Reggie McAdams nailed a three to get the Zips almost even, and then went on to score the next eleven points for Akron. Two free throws by the junior sharpshooter gave the Zips their first lead of the game since 7-6 and Kent State was on their heels.
Brewer hit one of the bigger shots of the game - a three from the near corner - to answer a Zips run and get the crowd back into the game. McAdams promptly answered with yet another three to tie, but Kent then went on an 10-0 run to push the lead to 67-59 with five minutes left.
It looked like Akron might fold up and go home, but to their credit they fought back. Two straight threes from McAdams and Antino Jackson and an Isaiah Johnson lay-up brought the deficit to three after Brewer hit yet another clutch trey.
With under a minute left, the madness started to begin. It didn't seem that way at first - Kent State built up a 76-70 lead with 47 seconds left by nailing their free throws.
Akron wasn't ready to die just yet. McAdams hit a huge three, and after Brewer missed the front end of a one-and-one, Nyles Evans was fouled shooting a three. He only was able to make two of the three, and Jimmy Hall was fouled on the next possession.
Hall was only able to make one of two freebies to push the lead to two. Antino Jackson came down the court in a flurry and through some picks got matched up with Hall. Jackson made a nifty move past the bigger Hall and layed the ball in to tie the game with five seconds to play.
Then, it was Kris Brewer time. I'll let the video do all of the talking:
Here's what the final seconds looked like at the MAC Center pic.twitter.com/ITe8J0MSct— Hustle Belt (@HustleBelt) March 7, 2015
OH ALL OF THE #MACTION!
Jackson finished with 22 points and only missed three shots from the field. Brewer had 20, which amazingly ALL came in the second half. Hall had another great outing, getting 18 points and six rebounds coming off of the bench.
Akron was led by McAdams who finished with 17, who like Brewer scored all of his points in the second half. Antino Jackson had another huge game scoring 16 points and dishing out seven assists. Johnson and Cheatham both finished in double figures, with 14 and 12 respectively.
The Zips finished as the 7 seed and will host Northern Illinois on Monday at 7. If they advance, they will play the winner of Ohio and Western Michigan on Wednesday of next week at Quicken Loans Arena. These two teams could meet again, as the Flashes get whoever wins this pod in the quarterfinals.