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MAC Tournament 2017: Kent State nips Ohio at final buzzer to punch ticket to MAC Championship

Jaylin Walker’s floater with four seconds left pushed Kent State into the MAC Championship

NCAA Basketball: Kent State at Texas Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

When thinking about the quintessential MAC Semifinal game, two of the teams you want involved are two of the most successful schools in recent MAC basketball history. The Kent State Golden Flashes and Ohio Bobcats have combined made appearances in 11 of the past 16 MAC Tournament Finals, with Kent State winning the tournament in 2001, 2002, 2006, and 2008 and Ohio taking home the trophy in 2005, 2010, and 2012. When Kent State toppled two-time defending champion Buffalo last night to make the dream match-up happen, the expectations of a MAC Tournament classic were firmly implanted in the minds of MAC basketball followers.

The contest certainly lived up to the hype, as Jaylin Walker’s floater in traffic with four seconds left put Kent State ahead 68-66. Ohio’s Jaaron Simmons dribbled up the court, searched for a screen and wandered into a double team before dishing the ball off to Doug Taylor right as the horn sounded. Taylor had no chance to get a shot off, and sixth seeded Kent State celebrated their first appearance in the MAC Tournament Championship since 2011.

Ohio got out to the early lead, as two Kenny Kaminski threes helped Ohio jump out to a 25-16 lead. Kent couldn’t get anything going, and Deon Edwin, who averaged 18 points against Ohio this year, picked up three fouls in the first ten minutes.

The Bobcats reached their largest lead of the night at 30-20 with 5:54 left. Kent counter-punched hard, closing the half on a 12-4 run. Simmons hit a floater at the end of the half to put Ohio on top 34-32 heading into the locker room, which stopped the bleeding momentarily.

An Edwin three ball gave Kent their first lead since the early stages of the game at 43-42 with just under 14 minutes to play. Both teams fought hard for buckets during stretches of the mid-second half, but it was reserve Kevin Zabo’s three that gave Kent their biggest lead of the game at 53-48.

Zabo was the unsung hero of the contest, scoring nearly a career high 15 points and playing a career high of 30 minutes. That three along with back-to-back deep balls minutes later gave the Flashes a seemingly comfortable 64-56 lead with just over two minutes remaining.

Ohio started to come back, cutting the Kent lead to five at 66-61. Simmons was at the line shooting two with 56 seconds on the clock. He made the first and missed the second but Doug Taylor grabbed the rebound. The ball eventually was kicked around to Kaminski, who drilled a three in the corner to cut Kent’s lead to just one.

On Kent’s next possession, the Flashes ran the shot clock all the way down but could only get off a long Jalen Avery three, which was off. Ohio rebounded and Simmons was eventually fouled with ten seconds left.

Simmons made the first and missed the second again, and Walker took the rebound, went coast to coast and nailed a floater in the lane.

Ohio’s last play was not well executed, as Simmons got the ball at the 34 court and tried to make a play. He ended up dribbling into a double team, and eventually just could not get a shot off.

Rob Senderoff attributed his team’s recent success in close games to two things: limiting turnovers and rebounding. The Flashes did have 14 turnovers, but Ohio was only able to score 13 points off of those turnovers. On the boards, Kent held a 40-30 advantage, including an 11-4 showing on the offensive glass.

Saul Phillips was downtrodden but proud of his team. “I thought we made plays to win it. I haven’t had a group that showed the resiliency and togetherness throughout this process. I’m very proud of their accomplishments.”

Hall ended up with a double-double, scoring 22 on 8-17 shooting and grabbing ten boards. His first half was not Jimmy Hall-esque, as he shot just 3-10 from the field, with most of those being close to the basket attempts. His second half was much better, as he netted 14 points in the latter frame. Walker, who hit the game winner, struggled from the floor shooting 3-11 including 0-6 from beyond the arc. But, he hit the only one that mattered.

Simmons paced the Bobcats with 25 points on 10-20 shooting and seven rebounds. His free throw misses came back to bite the Bobcats, as those two missed free throws near the end of the game cost Ohio important points. Kaminski followed up Simmons with 16 include four 3-pointers. No one else really stepped up in that third scoring role though, with Doug Taylor being the next highest scorer with eight points and six rebounds.

The Flashes move on to face rival Akron in he MAC Championship game tomorrow evening. The game tips at 7:30 Eastern time and will be televised by ESPN2.

Akron and Kent State split the season series, with the Flashes winning 70-67 at the JAR and falling 66-56 at home.