Kent State built big leads during the first and second half, and endured several Akron comeback attempts to secure a 79–73 MAC Tournament semifinal victory on Friday night in Cleveland.
Miryne Thomas and Sincere Carry led the Golden Flashes on offense, while Malique Jacobs shined on defense. The Zips weren’t able to click on offense well enough to come back from big deficits and saw their season come to an end two wins away from The Big Dance.
More than midway through the first half, it looked like the Golden Flashes might run away with a victory as they took a 34–19 lead with 6:02 left in the period, prompting a John Groce timeout. Following the timeout, the Zips responded, going on a 15–4 run to end the half. The run was made possible by Enrique Freeman, who tallied a first half double-double with 16 points and 10 rebounds.
The Golden Flashes, who took afour-point lead into the halftime break, went on another run to start the second half, building a 59–41 lead with 13:45 remaining in the game. Miryne Thomas scored 10 of his 24 points during the run. Again, when it looked like Kent State was going to coast to victory, their momentum was killed by a stop in the action. Malique Jacobs picked up a technical foul for taunting that gave Akron a four-point possession— and the confidence to get back in it.
The Zips turned to Freeman once again — who finished with a game high 26 points — and Xavier Castaneda to close their rivals’ lead. Castaneda, who spent many offensive possessions double-teamed, shot poorly from the field but went 9-of-9 from the charity stripe.
After a Freeman layup to get Akron within four with 1:20 remaining, all-MAC defense honoree Greg Tribble made the best defensive play of the night. He ran through the key to chase down Malique Jacobs and pin his layup attempt against the glass. Had the Zips gone on to win, the play would have gone down in Akron history.
Instead, Castaneda hit the front iron on a very deep three on the next possession and Kent State added to their lead following the miss. Castaneda would miss another deep three with 40 seconds left to seal Akron’s fate. It is safe to say the 2022–23 MAC leading scorer would like to have those possessions back.
Down the stretch Friday night, the Golden Flashes kept Akron in check. Malique Jacobs was strong on defense and finished with four steals and a block. The Golden Flashes big men also did a good job limiting Enrique Freeman from getting the ball on the final few possessions. The team also did what they needed to do at the free throw line to ice the game and take the season series against the Zips 2–1.
Akron will finish the year with a 22–11 record, John Groce’s fifth winning season in six seasons at Akron. The Zips will miss their star Castaneda, but Enrique Freeman, who has already racked up several MAC accolades in his career, is poised for a big senior year heading into the 2023–24 season.
Kent State, meanwhile, is set to make their second-straight MAC Tournament Championship game appearance, and will look to clinch an NCAA Tournament berth for the first time since 2017.
The Golden Flashes will face the top-seeded Toledo Rockets, who they defeated back on January 10, at 7:30 p.m. Eastern time for a game to be broadcast on ESPN2. Toledo is riding a 17-game win streak— a streak which dates back to that game vs. KSU.