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Akron sheds daunting deficit to top Western Michigan, 79-78

The 11th-seeded Zips stay alive with the lone opening round upset of the MAC tournament.

NCAA Basketball: Akron at Southern California Marco Garcia-USA TODAY Sports

Expect the unexpected.

No three words could better sum up Akron’s stunning 79-78 victory over Western Michigan in Kalamazoo on Monday night.

After an intense drive to the basket with the season on the line, freshman point guard Virshon Cotton swished two free throws with 1.7 seconds left to vault the Zips in front of the Broncos. Then, Akron deflected Western Michigan’s inbounds pass and the Broncos would rely on Thomas Wilder to launch the game-winner. In a game where anything seemed to fall in the final seconds, Wilder’s shot did not and the Broncos fell victim to the only upset in the opening round of the 2018 MAC Tournament.

The Zips managed to pull out an unforgettable 79-78 victory in Kalamazoo, but the first eight minutes of the night suggested that Akron would be packing its bags and declining a trip to Cleveland. Akron trailed 18-0, comically failing to score a basket until Daniel Utomi threw down an uncontested dunk with 11:54 left in the first half.

The sixth-seeded Broncos kept their hooves on the pedal for the next several minutes, leading by as much as 23 points after Wilder’s layup lifted Western Michigan to a 27-4 advantage. But the next 17 points of the contest would belong to the Zips. An inspired Akron team continued to fight for its life, and the 11-seed somehow only trailed 35-31 at the deficit.

Coming out of the break, a cooled down Broncos team would manage to hang onto the lead for about three minutes. But once again, Utomi swung the momentum in Akron’s favor. The small forward drained a three and then hit a layup to gain the team’s first advantage of the evening. After trailing 18-0 out of the gate, Akron only required less than 16 minutes of clock time to earn a lead.

And that lead kept growing and growing. Both teams switched roles from the opening minutes and the Zips claimed their own double-digit lead, storming ahead by 10 with as little as 5:36 to go. But once it was 68-58, Western Michigan finally regained its mojo.

Bryce Moore and Reggie Jones canned key triples for the Broncos, trimming Akron’s lead to 74-70 with 1:08 to go. Then, Cotton proved a freshman wasn’t too shy for the conference’s biggest stage. He confidently crossed over at the top of the key and pulled up for a three off the dribble. It sunk toward the back of the net as 45 seconds remained on the clock to extend the lead to a seeming insurmountable gap of 77-70.

The next possession saw the Broncos’ Jones fouled on the ensuing three-point attempt and he converted on three consecutive free throws. Then, in a wild sequence of events, Akron turned it over and Wilder, a first-team all-MAC point guard, reaped the benefits, allowing WMU to make it a one-possession game at 77-75.

Akron turned it over once again thanks to pressure from WMU defenders, as Josh Davis stole the ball for the Broncos and dished it to Moore for a running shot from the left wing. It was a originally ruled a two-pointer, but the referees reversed it to a three upon further investigation, completing an 8-0 Western Michigan run which took all of 15 seconds to produce. The Broncos suddenly held a 78-77 lead with 17 seconds to go in the game on their home court.

It was all for naught, however, as Akron would draw a key foul with 1.7 seconds left and hit the game-deciding free throws to secure a trip to Cleveland.

Akron, whose current record stands at 14-17, overcame being on the road, an 18-point deficit, and an unlikely Western Michigan 8-0 run in order to advance to Quicken Loans Arena for a Thursday date with Eastern Michigan.

The Broncos’ 17-15 season comes to a bitter close on a three-game losing streak, failing to become the second-straight 6-seed to win the MAC Tournament.

But one of these teams had to go home, even after the instant classic. This game had every element of an incredible college basketball game and will prolong in the minds of MAC fans as one of the crazier results of the season, from start to finish.