The date was March 12, 2011. The sixth seeded Akron Zips headed into the MAC Championship game facing top seed and rival Kent State. In a thrilling affair, the Zips eked out a 66-65 overtime victory, sending them to their second NCAA Tournament appearance in three years.
The script was flipped for tonight’s battle between the rivals located just 15 miles from each other along Interstate 76. This time, Akron came in as the favorite - an immovable force with so many scoring options. Kent State wasn’t necessarily supposed to be here coming off a ho-hum regular season, but earned their spot in the finals by knocking out the second and third seed in the tournament’s earlier rounds.
However, this time, it was Kent’s turn as a six seed to stun the top dogs.
In front of a pretty much sold-out crowd at Quicken Loans Arena, Kent State took the early lead and held on at the end, holding off a Zips squad that could never just get over the hump. The Flashes punched a ticket to the NCAA Tournament, ending a nine-year drought with the 70-65 victory.
Both Akron and Kent State looked to establish their best players in the post early. The Isaiah Johnson - Jimmy Hall battle got off to a quick start with both players using their scoring ability in the post and their passing ability out of the post to find open shooters. But, more of Hall’s kick-outs were ending up as assists than Johnson’s, as the Zips started off ice cold from beyond two feet. Akron went 1-7 from the field and 2-5 at the free throw line to start the game, while Kent built a 11-3 lead behind 5-8 shooting from the floor.
The momentum seemed to be shifting towards Akron’s way when Hall picked up his second foul at the 10:28 mark of the first half with the Flashes leading 13-10. Johnson scored two straight baskets on Hall’s backup Adonis De La Rosa. The Akron senior big man from Cincinnati also did well to draw fouls on De La Rosa, who picked up his third foul at the 4:44 mark of the first half.
Akron didn’t capitalize on the time that Hall was out of the game as Jaylin Walker picked up the slack in Hall’s absence. Walker provided a couple baskets that helped Kent to keep the lead, even when do-everything Hall was sitting in foul trouble.
A Josh Williams three gave Akron their first lead of the game at 22-21. That was Akron’s first three of the game which occurred with just over three minutes left in the first half. The Zips finished 1-6 from behind the arc in the first half, but Kent State was not any better shooting 1-7.
The Flashes took at 27-24 lead into the locker room at half, led by Walker’s eleven and Hall’s ten. Johnson matched his counterpart with ten, but Akron’s next highest scorer was Williams at six.
Kent State came out of halftime on fire, hitting their first four of six from the field to take a 36-28 lead. Akron came storming back, cutting the lead to just two after an Antino Jackson three. Johnson tied game at 43 with 11:52 left to play, after an and-one that gave Hall his third foul.
Two Williams threes gave Akron a 49-47 lead, which ended up being their last of the game. An 13-2 Kent State run followed, including a big Hall dunk on a breakaway that gave the Flashes all the momentum they would need. The run was capped by a clutch Mitch Peterson three ball in the corner, putting the Flashes up nine - their largest lead of the game.
Akron tried their best to come back, and if not for a few Jimond Ivey threes at the end the score wouldn’t have been as close as it was. The Zips had some defensive lapses in the last few minutes, and only had four team fouls when they needed to send Kent to the free throw line. Issues trying to foul a Kent player killed precious time that the Zips needed to mount their comeback.
The larger Akron issues came from a couple places. First, Akron’s inability to hit the deep ball and free throws did them no help. Going 6-22 from beyond the arc and 7-13 from the line is not going to win you many games, especially in a championship game. Also, Johnson did not take a shot for a seven minute stretch in the mid-second half. The Zips completely went away from their game of establishing Johnson, which enabled Kent to go on that 10-0 run that effectively sealed the game.
Walker was the star of the show for the second night in a row for the Flashes. The Sophomore guard from Detroit put up a career high 30 points on 11-18 shooting, making clutch shot after clutch shot. Walker’s play drove Kent State over the past two days, and earned him a First Team All-MAC Tournament selection and Tournament MVP.
Hall finished with another double-double, notching 19 points and 10 boards. He didn’t dominate, but he didn’t need to with Walker’s stellar play. A third scorer never emerged for the Flashes, but they’ll need someone else to step up in the NCAA Tournament to take the burden off of Kent’s two stars.
Momentum is certainly on Kent’s side, as Kent State coach Rob Senderoff mentioned how “today was our day” and “this week was our week.” Senderoff also commented that over the last month, the team felt they were the best in the conference which certainly showed during the games against Buffalo, Ohio and Akron.
Kent State will find out their destination on Selection Sunday, while Akron should know Monday night where they will (likely) be heading to in the first round of the NIT.