Wire-to-wire wins are usually blow-outs, but in Cleveland, nothing is that easy. As famous Akronite LeBron James once said, “Nothing is given, everything is earned.” The Akron Zips found that out on Friday night, as they had to battle the Ball State Cardinals for the whole 40 minutes in a gritty 74-70 win.
The Zips came out on fire, opening the game on a 7-0 run. Kwan Cheatham would match a Tayler Persons three-pointer to make it 10-3, and it looked like Akron would be unstoppable. But the Cardinals did not go away. They would hit seven three-pointers - matching their total from yesterday’s first half against Western Michigan - as they kept pace with their local foes. However, riding their Big Dog in Isaiah Johnson, Akron carried a 39-30 lead into the break.
The second half saw both teams come out relatively cold from the floor, with the Zips particularly rough from the floor. The Cardinals weren’t much better, but by getting to the foul line, they were able to cut the gap all the way down to two points with 10:31 to go. A 7-1 run to that point would be broken by a Cheatham three pointer, and the Zips would rebuild their lead to double digits over the next three minutes.
For the next 5 minutes, the lead oscillated between four and eight points as the teams traded blows and buckets. Every time it appeared the Cardinals had a bit of momentum, the Zips would respond. After a Francis Kiapway three-pointer made it a one possession game with just over two minutes to go, it appeared we’d be set for a wild finish. But Akron used its ace in the hole immediately, dumping the ball down to the MAC Player of the Year in Johnson, whose “and one” would be the first of two daggers.
A minute later, after the teams traded free throws, Tayler Persons’ three pointer once again made it a one possession game. But with just 38 seconds on the clock, the Cardinals elected to foul to give themselves more possessions. Jimond Ivey’s free throws would officially ice the game for good, and the Cardinals would miss three straight threes to close the door altogether.
“We delivered about 4 knockout punches tonight,” Akron head coach Keith Dambrot said after the game. “We staggered (Ball State) and we just couldn’t put them out. It was a good ballgame. Not so much fun to coach in, but a good game for fans.”
While Johnson was the first half leader for the Zips, Antino Jackson really helped carry Akron to the victory in the second half, as both finished with 19 points and 6 rebounds on the night. Cheatham finished with 11 points, but after the aforementioned three pointer in the first half, he only had the 2nd half three before fouling out in a quiet night. Ivey nearly finished with a double-double, scoring 7 points and grabbing 8 rebounds.
For the Cardinals, Tahjai Teague finished with a career-high 19 points in the losing effort, while also grabbing 6 rebounds. Kiapway added another 12 points, and Jeremie Tyler had a solid 11. Franko House, in possibly his final game in a Ball State uniform, finished a point shy of a double-double, scoring 9 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. Persons, who was involved in a nasty collision on Thursday and did not return, had a solid 6 point, 5 rebound, 4 assist game, but he shot 2-for-7 and finished with 4 turnovers.
The Zips await the winner of the Ohio/Kent State semi-final in tomorrow night’s title game. Tip-off is 7:30 pm, and will be broadcast on ESPN2