CLEVELAND – When addressing her University of Tennessee Lady Vols about this time of year, Hall of Fame coach Pat Summitt embraced the phrase, “Survive and Advance.”
The Akron Zips again proved to be survivors Thursday and did advance in Mid-American Conference tournament play with a 53-51 come-from-behind victory over arch rival Kent State at Quicken Loans Arena.
The Zips were down 13 points in the first half and four with after Kris Brewer’s two free throws at 2:00 made it a 51-47 game. Reggie McAdams hit a 3-pointer at the other end to close the gap, and Akron got the ball back following a KSU turnover.
Deji Ibitayo was fouled with 38 ticks left and converted both free throws to put Akron in front, 52-51. Kent State got the ball to Kris Brewer at the other end, but Brewer could not convert on two chances. Nyles Evans made one of two chances for UA after being fouled and the Zips escaped with their second win in three tries against KSU this year.
“It was typical Akron-Kent grind it out game” Zips head coach Keith Dambrot said. “We did what we had to do to win. It was a great game -- an exciting game.”
Since losing to them last Friday at the buzzer in Kent, Akron (21-13) came into the tournament as the seventh seed and rattled off victories over tenth seed Northern Illinois on Monday, the eighth seed Western Michigan Wednesday, before edging the Flashes Thursday.
It sets up a meeting with the surging Buffalo Bulls Friday night in the semifinals. UB, a No. 2 seed, will see its first tourney action after closing the regular season with six straight wins. One of those was a 67-62 decision over Akron.
Junior center Pat Forsythe came off the bench to lead UA with 12 points, along with three rebounds and a blocked shot. Freshman guard Antino Jackson had 11 with three assists, while sophomore Isiah Johnson added 10 with five boards and three blocks
Kent State (21-11) tied with Buffalo for the MAC Eastern Division Championship and was a three seed. The Flashes saw their overall losing streak in MAC Tournament play extended to three consecutive games and four of the last five, dating back to when they lost to the Zips in the quarterfinals in 2012.
“Last week (when) we played them, we made one more play than them. Tonight, they made one more play than us.” KSU head man Rob Senderoff said.
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The two rivals have staged memorable battles, not only in regular season play, but in MAC Tournament games, as well. This third meeting of this campaign was no exception.
Both teams started slowly. With UA holding a 10-9 lead at the 13:08 mark on a conventional three-point play by Forsythe, KSU went on a 14-2 run to take control of the contest, 23-12, at the 4:45 mark when senior Kris Brewer made one of two free throws.
The Flashes then opened their largest lead of the game 27-14 at the 1:52 mark when Hall, who scored eight points in the opening period, connected on a layup.
UA finished the half scoring the final four points. Antino Jackson made both ends of a one-and-one free throw and sophomore Kwan Cheatham connected on a three-pointer from the right corner. The Zips went into halftime trailing by only eight points at 27-19.
In the first 20 minutes, both teams showed signs of ineffectiveness. KSU had not played since beating the Zips Friday night on a last second shot by Brewer. He was just 11-of-29 from the field (37.9%) and just 2-of-8 from three point range Thursday. The Flashes did hold a decisive 26-18 rebounding edge and, thanks to Hall, held a 12-8 edge in points inside the lane.
UA, playing its fourth game in six days, was just 7-of-29 from the floor (24.1%) and 2-of-14 from beyond the arc. In recent games, 3-point shooting had been a key weapon for the Zips.
As the second half began, Akron started to nibble and gnaw away at its deficit. It did so by driving right at the KSU defense to the basket rather than go over them with the trey attempts.
On the drives of Antino Jackson, and senior Deji Ibitayo, the Zips outscored the KSU 13-7 to close to within two, 34-32, with 13:08 remaining.
KSU pushed the lead back out to six, 38-32, on a driving layup by Jackson and a pair of free throws from junior Chris Ortiz.
As UA continued to drive, the Flashes got into foul trouble. They reached the one-and-one bonus just over eight minutes into the period.
Finally, a 10-3 spurt gave the Zips their first lead since the 16:01 mark of the first half. Forsythe used a conventional three-point play, his second of the game, to give them a 42-41 lead with 7:33 remaining.
It was a welcome return to form for Forsythe. The junior suffered a case of turf toe in the Zips loss at Miami on March 3. He did not play in the regular season finale against KSU. In the tournament, he dressed for the first game against NIU but played just two minutes. He was also used sparingly (eight minutes) against Western Michigan Wednesday.
When asked about his play and coming back from the injury, Forsythe said “I felt good. Had a couple of days rest. I feel good and strong now.”
The 6-11 junior center was particularly effective in the second half. Another Forsythe layup gave UA its largest lead of the game, 44-41, at the 6:44 mark, KSU responded with an 8-1 run to open a 49-45 lead at the 2:57 mark on a steal and layup by Brewer.
In the closing moments, the Zips had one final kick to get the victory. It started with another driving layup by Forstyhe, then junior Reggie McAdams connected for a three from the left arc, one of just five baskets from beyond the arc the Zips made on the evening. When Ibitayo made two free throws with 38.5 seconds remaining, the Zips had the lead for good 52-51.
KSU had their chances to win in the closing seconds. Two came from Brewer, who beat the Zips with a driving layup with :00.3 remaining on Friday. However on this night, his first attempt bounced all over the rim before falling off. The second attempt was a jumper from the right wing and that bounced away off the rim.
Antino Jackson grabbed the precious rebound, getting the ball to senior guard Nyles Evans. He was fouled by Hall, disqualifying the sophomore with 7.9 seconds remaining. Evans made just one of two free throws, giving KSU one last chance.
KSU made a shot, but the clock had was already at triple zeroes, giving the Zips their third straight win over Kent State in MAC Tournament play.
Senderoff said he told his team, “We will not have our season defined by this game. We won the regular season championship. We won 21 games (on the season). We just had a bad night.”
UA went 9-of-18 from the field in the second period, finishing the game at 34 percent (16-of-47). KSU was just 7-of-23 from the floor (30.4%) and 34.6% for the game (18-of-52). The Flashes struggled from distance, making 2-of-17 from beyond the arc and failing to sink a three pointer in nine second half attempts. KSU won the rebounding battle, 39-31.
For all the drama, it was a well played game with just nine total turnovers (only three committed by the Zips).
For the third consecutive game, Akron will be playing an opponent for the third time in a season. UA and UB split their two regular season encounters -- each winning as a visitor. It will be just the second meeting for these two teams in the tournament play and first since the 2009 Championship Game (won by the Zips, 65-53).