CLEVELAND, Ohio – Eastern Michigan stormed back from a 19-point deficit midway through the second half to defeat the Akron Zips 67-58 in quarterfinal action of the 2018 Mid-American Conference Basketball Tournament Thursday evening at Quicken Loans Arena.
EMU trailed Akron 47-28 with 12:29 remaining in the game. From that point on, the Eagles outscored UA 39-11. They moved in front for the first time in the game on a 3-point play by Paul Jackson with 2:23 remaining and held the Zips to only four points over the final 6:59 of the contest.
Junior Elijah Minnie led all scorers in the contest with 21 points and 14 rebounds, helping Eastern Michigan (21-11, 11-7 MAC) post its seventh consecutive victory and a berth in the semi-finals for the first time since 1998. They Eagles will meet the Western Division champion Toledo for the third time this season.
“I thought it this was a really good win for us.” Eagles head coach Rob Murphy said. “We got off to a slow start, but a lot of credit goes to these guys for being down 19, continuing to believe what we preach and teach every day defensively, and executing.”
Joining Minnie in double figures for EMU was Jackson and Tim Bond -- each with 15 points. Bond added five assists.
Akron (14-18, 6-12) failing to make the semi-finals for the first time since 2006, was led by sophomore Daniel Utomi with 14 points. Freshman Eric Parrish and Grad Malcolm Duvivier each had 13, with Parris pulling down six rebounds and registering two steals.
“I know part of that is March, but it was obviously two completely different games -- one that swung our way, one that didn't,” Zips head coch John Groce said. “Today, I thought our first half was terrific, I thought it was maybe about as good as we played all year.
"We get up 19 ... and change, and I just don't think we did the things we needed to do to finish it. We turned the ball over nine times in the second half. I thought that came back to haunt us. I thought their press bothered us a little bit, and it got us in situations where we weren't able to get into offense as quickly as we needed to, and that disrupted out rhythm”
The Zips, who reached the quarterfinal by defeating Western Michigan on Monday night, opened the game strong, hitting four of their first seven shots and held the lead for over 37 minutes.
It was a nine-point Akron advantage at the break, and the Zips expanded their lead to 19 in the second half after Utomi hit a twisting jumper in the lane.
EMU’s comeback really started at the 8:08 mark when Jackson was fouled by Jimond Ivey, who then incurred a technical foul for disputing the foul call. Jackson made the and-one and Bond hit both of the technical free throws.
UA was up 57-46 following freshman Vischon Cotton’s three from the right corner at 6:57, but Eastern then scored the next 14 points and 21 of the last 22 in the game .
Everyone contributed in the decisive run. Jackson scored seven points, while Minnie hit a pair of threes and Bond scored four points thanks to a layup and a pair of free throws.
Another big factor in the run was James Thompson IV. The junior was saddled with foul trouble for a majority of the game and managed just five points. However, his presence defensively late in the game was huge.
Asked about his big man, Murphy said “I give James a lot of credit. He did not score a lot but in the last six minutes he came up with a huge block (and) a huge deflection, which led to a steal and a transition basket.”
The victory was EMU’s first ever over Akron in MAC Tournament play and second straight after losing 15-straight to the Zips.
The Eagles and Rockets will meet for the third time this season with a trip to the Championship Game in the balance. Eastern Michigan won both of the regular season matchups against Toledo. Both came during the Eagles six-game win streak to close pre-tournament play.