A wounded Humpty Hitchens slung his life preserver around the Zips, twice rescuing Akron from a lackluster effort with miracle plays.
The Zips trailed by three with just seconds left in regulation. The ball, like Akron's hope, was squirting away. Hitchens, who had recently sprained his ankle, grabbed the ball and drilled a 3-pointer to tie the game with 1 second left.
Akron faced a similarly dismal outlook with 1.5 seconds left in overtime, down by one. Hitchens lobbed the ball over the defense to Brett McKnight, who dropped in the game-winning basket
Akron won a rollercoaster shootout, 93-92, which gave the Zips a ticket to the quarterfinals and a 20-win season.
"It was an unbelievable pass," assistant coach Jeff Boals said in the post-game radio show. "The pass had to be perfect."
Before both of Hitchens' heroics, Akron looked utterly hopeless. The Zips trailed by 12 with five minutes left. The team had gone 14 minutes without a field goal. Even in the last two minutes, Akron appeared sunk. The turning point was when Brett McKnight made a layup and was fouled. Nate Linhart put back the subsequent missed free throw to bring Akron within 1. After two Toledo free throws, Brett McClanahan missed a potential game-tying 3, but Brett McKnight grabbed the rebound and fed Hitchens for the game-tying 3.
Akron pulled ahead of Toledo in overtime thanks to 3-pointers from Brett McKnight and Hitchens and a key put-back from Nik Cvetinovic. Toledo found a window when Linhart threw a loose ball out of bounds. Toledo's Clayton Sterling drove and made a shot while falling forward, giving the Rockets a one-point lead. Akron had 1.5 seconds left for the Hitchens-to-Brett McKnight connection.
In an unprecedented abuse of the whistle, refs blew 62 fouls and 34 on the Zips. Akron's highest foul total this season had been 30. As the game neared a conclusion, both teams saw their benches narrow. Darryl Roberts, Chris McKnight and Steve McNees fouled out. Toledo lost Jonathan Amos, Tyrone Kent and Mohamed Lo to fouls, as well.
Kent and Amos combined for 45 points. In their final college games, they played phenomenally. Chris McKnight led Akron with 18 points. Linhart had 11 rebounds.
The game conjured two memories for me. First, it reminded me of the end of this football season, during which the Zips went from first place to irrelevant within a couple weeks. Second, it reminded me of Akron's 2006 loss to Toledo in the MAC semifinals. The Zips were favored but they had little tournament experience. The Rockets team snuck up and stabbed them in the hearts. (Who can forget then-sophomore Tyrone Kent's game-sealing midcourt steal and dunk?)
Young teams fade near the end of the season for several reasons. The large amount of minutes wears out the freshmen and newcomers who are not accustomed to five months of high-intensity basketball. Also, opponents pick up on the youngsters' tendencies.
It has not affected Hitchens.
There is no doubt that Hitchens, a true freshman, wants the ball when Akron faces danger. There is equally no doubt that Keith Dambrot ought to gladly give it to him. If you remember, Hitchens made a fabulous assist on the game-winning shot for Chillicothe in the state title game last spring.
I had a third memory during this game. Last season, I was chatting with Boals about what a certain 7-footer would bring to the Zips. Boals agreed, but he stopped me. He said, "You're going to love Humpty Hitchens."
Indeed. Both the 7-footer and Hitchens will be foundations of this program until 2012.
For now, the Zips will recuperate from a thrilling win. Then they will prepare for their Thursday game against Miami at 9:30.