CLEVELAND- After eight hard-fought contests, with a few upsets along the way, the 2016 Mid-American Conference Men's Basketball Tournament presented by VisitMyrtleBeach.com has come down to this: No. 1 seed Akron against No. 3 seed Buffalo.
Both teams looked good while taking care of business in the semi-finals Friday night. One more win is all that stands between each and a MAC tourney title, which also brings a ticket to the upcoming NCAA tournament.
This is the 37th tournament championship and 17th since the tournament moved to Cleveland in 2000. Tipoff at Quicken Loans Arena is at 7:30 p.m. ET. The game will be televised on ESPN2.
Here's a look at tonight's combatants :
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The Zips were picked in the pre-season as the top team in the Eastern Division. They opened the season without their point guard sophomore Noah Robotham, who was recovering from an ACL injury suffered late last season.
UA began with four straight wins, including a victory at Arkansas in the NIT season tip-off. Then came losses at nationally ranked Villanova and a nip-and-tuck loss at Green Bay. When Akron defeated Charleston Southern on November 27, it started a 10-game winning streak that included wins over Cal-Santa Barbara and Iona at the Southpoint Tournament in Las Vegas.
A downside of that tournament was the loss of senior Pat Forsythe to an ankle injury that would plague him for a majority of the MAC season. However, Robotham, playing in front of family and friends, returned to the lineup and showed no ill effects from the ACL injury.
The MAC campaign with a win at Buffalo, which had been a house of horrors for UA over the years. After wins over UB and Western Michigan, the Zips ran into problems with consecutive road losses at Central Michigan and Toledo.
Following the loss to UT, the Zips put together another winning streak. This one covered seven games and included home wins over Eastern Michigan, Northern Illinois and the rematch over CMU. The streak ended with a stunning one-point loss at NIU. UA then lost two of its next three games on the road -- one at arch-rival Kent State and another at Miami.
With their East Division lead and number seed status in jeopardy, the Zips still had an ace up their sleeve. Their last three games would be at home, where the Zips were undefeated. UA took care of the job winning the final three i-- ncluding the rematch with KSU -- to take the Regular season championship, the East title and the No. 1 seed.
In their first tournament game, Akron got a major score from Eastern Michigan, but Zips prevailed in the closing moments 65-63.
In semi-finals action, Akron used a 12-2 run midway through the second half to end the upset run of Bowling Green 80-66.
One player who has blossomed this season for UA is junior Isiah Johnson. The Cincinnati native was named First team All-MAC and the sixth man of the year as he led the Zips in scoring during the regular season, averaging 13.6 points per game and 14.8 in MAC play.
In the tournament, he came up big in their two wins with 19 points and 16 rebounds against EMU then validated that performance with 23 points in the victory over BGSU.
Head Coach Keith Dambrot has said he has had to ‘re-invente” his team after Forsythe went down a second time -- this being a shoulder that ended his season. The Zips have been one of the top three-point shooting teams, not only in the MAC but in all of Division I, shooting 39 percent from beyond the arc.
The long range brigade is led by senior Reggie McAdams, hitting at 41 percent from that distance. Others who also can hit the triple are Robotham and freshman Josh Williams -- both over 40 percent from distance.
The Bulls team that made the championship game is a far cry from the one that cut down the lets a year ago to win its first MAC Tournament over Central Michigan and reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history.
After a loss to West Virginia in the second round, head coach Bobby Hurley left Western New York for Arizona State.
UB took very little time to name its successor in Nate Oats who had been on the staff the past two seasons.
The Bulls were picked fourth in the pre-season polls for the Eastern Division. They opened the season with wins in five of their first seven games before losses at defending national champion Duke, nationally ranked Iowa State and at VCU before the MAC schedule began.
UB opened conference play with a tough home loss to Akron but rebounded by beating Kent State on the road.
In late January, UB put together a five-game winning streak -- their longest of the season . That run included road wins at Toledo and Northern Illinois.
After a stretch of five losses in seven games, including an overtime thriller at Ohio, their place among the MAC's top four was a bit precarious. However they secured the third seed with a win on the final night at Bowling Green.
In the tournament, the Bulls defeated 11th seed Miami 94-81 before pulling away in the second half Friday night to defeat second seeded Ohio 88-74 reaching the title tilt.
The Bulls were led to this championship game by Lemonte Bearden. The sophomore guard, who was one of the main cogs for UB last season, withstood a suspension midway through the 2015-16 campaign and still led them Buffalo in scoring average (13.6 ppg).
Bearden is one of four UB players averaging in double figures. Others on the list are junior Blake Hamilton (13.1), junior Willie Conner(12.2) and freshman CJ Massinburg (11.1)