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The Zips are 1.5-point favorites to advance to the MAC Championship. Later tonight, Ohio and Buffalo will play for the other spot in the finals, where Ohio is a 3.5-point favorite.
If Zeke Marshall didn't need additional motivation, they left him off the team roster. Don't worry guys. He wasn't Defensive Player of the Year or anything. I was just talking with ABJ photography Phil Masturzo about Marshall's nine-block performance in last year's MAC Finals victory over Kent.
Akron's starters: Alex Abreu, Brian Walsh, Nik Cvetinovic, Chauncey Gilliam and Marshall.
Kent's starters: Michael Porrini, Randal Holt, Carlton Guyton, Justin Manns and Justin Greene.
Kent State's starting lineup features four seniors and a junior. I don't think there can be much question that the Flashes will have to re-establish their identity after this year, losing so many leaders. Chris Evans is a nice player, and Holt can be dominant. Outside of those two, there are some holes to fill, particularly along the front line.
As much as I rag on Kent State, I really do like a lot of their players. Porrini and Greene, in particular, are good representatives for Kent State. Much better than the years of Haminn Quaintance and Chris Singletary. Those were not likeable teams.
Keith Dambrot is assuming his normal pregame post -- sitting on the home bench, staring as the opposing team warms up. Partly watching, partly gazing off into space.
With five minutes until tipoff, attendance appears poor. Of course, a lot of the tickets were sold to Ohio or Buffalo fans, and that game does not start until 9:30 or later.
Make sure you're following George Thomas on Twitter. He's posting during the game. And if you didn't read his profile on Marshall, you should. It's the most accurate way someone has illustrated Zeke to date.
The entrance music for Akron's starters is a Kanye West song with a title that I can't type on this blog. Smart politicians won't touch that word with a 10-foot pole.
Kent State leads the all-time series 69-65.
Marshall walked out to center court with a big grin on his face. He looks loose.
Pregame - Akron 0, Kent State 0
By tipoff, the crowd improved. Given the amount of Buffalo/OU fans that aren't here yet, it's pretty solid attendance.
I wish we could just fast-forward to the 6 minute mark in the second half. You know, until then, nothing really matters. A 20-point lead is no big deal. Western Michigan nearly proved that against KSU last night.
Kent State has scored twice on Akron defensive lapses.
I'm looking forward to seeing what Quincy Diggs and Nick Harney can do in this tournament. They are two players who admit they play down to their competition, at least a little. Diggs, Brett McClanahan and Demetrius Treadwell will be the first Zips off the bench.
The teams both started off hot, combining for 12-for-16 from the field. If they keep this pace (and they won't), the final score will be 120-112.
14:23 - Akron 14, Kent State 15
With Diggs and Abreu on the floor, Diggs is running the point.
McClanahan got yanked after two minutes on the floor because he chucked up another wild 3. I'm fine with having a steadying senior on the floor, but not one who has lost all shot selection wisdom. Fans do have a short memory, so if he makes just one ill-advised 3, the prior dozen might be forgiven.
11:27 - Akron 17, Kent State 17
Abreu threw a transition pass over the defense with vision like Drew Brees. Good for a Cvetinovic layup. Akron's four-point lead is the largest for either team.
Porrini is guarding Harney. That's a mismatch on both ends. Harney needs to post him up. Porrini needs to torch Harney off the dribble.
Gilliam has made two 3-point attempts.
Diggs did something I haven't seen him do since last March -- assert himself off the dribble. That's a rare skill in the MAC.
Abreu canned a 3, causing Kent State to call timeout.
6:55 - Akron 33, Kent State 26
You can't say the Zips are rusty after having six days off. They are running a smooth offense.
Here's a shout-out to Summit County Clerk of Courts Dan Horrigan, who said he'd be following this blog during his son's confirmation. #ZipsDevotion
I think I heard about 15 "Damnit, Zeke!"s from the crowd. Marshall committed his second foul -- a dumb and obvious one, going over the back of Greene.
I hate to be a broken record, but McClanahan blasted a wide-open 3 off side-iron. Two plays later, it was an equally bad miss. Come on.
Harney has six points. I can easily picture him exploding for 20 tonight. He is focused and eager to get the ball.
3:19 - Akron 37, Kent State 30
Kent State began a token full-court press.
Dambrot is angry about a horseradish call against Harney, who inadvertently ran into Manns away from the ball. Kent is shooting two for the rest of the half.
Akron ran a very promising possession with working the ball down to Harney and then pushing it back out to the perimeter. The result was an easy Cvetinovic layup as the defense was adjusting.
Porrini and Diggs got into a little mini-skirmish. After Diggs stepped out of bounds, Porrini slapped the ball out of his hands then gave Diggs a tiny push. It could have been a technical foul, but I'm glad it wasn't. It looked like an isolated incident, so there's no need for referee intervention.
The Zips wasted the final possession of the half. Abreu called for a clear-out. He jab-stepped with two seconds left, hesitated, and threw it to Harney on the baseline. Harney had no time to do anything before the buzzer.
Halftime - Akron 41, Kent State 36
Notable halftime stats: Kent State is shooting 58.3 percent. Akron is 55.6 percent. Cvetinovic has 12 points. Manns, Greene, Harney and Gilliam have eight apiece. Akron is outrebounding Kent, 14 to nine. The Flashes have only one offensive rebound. Greene and Marshall have combined for three rebounds. Harney has four rebounds. Porrini has six assists. Kent is 0-for-3 on 3-pointers. Akron is 4-for-10. The teams have made a combined 15-of-16 free throws.
Cvetinovic, Harney and Gilliam are a combined 10-for-13 with 28 points.
Walsh committed his third foul. He's the only player in foul trouble for either team.
Kent State began the half with a 6-0 run. The crowd behind me is finally making some noise.
Walsh responded with a fade-away 3, which is sign language for "sit down and shut up."
Cvetinovic hit another 3. What is going on? Just like that, Akron returned serve for its own 6-0 run.
Abreu buried a 3. Timeout Kent State. #spurtability
15:17 - Akron 50, Kent State 42
Walsh uncharacteristically missed two free throws.
Diggs pulled up from eight feet to give Akron its first double-digit lead. It caps an 11-0 run for the Zips.
I hate to tell Rob Senderoff how to do his job, but the ball really should find Greene in the post.
Marshall is sporting a big grin after dunking through a Manns foul. His free throw extended the Roo lead to 13.
On the other end, Mashall got called for a ticky-tack foul -- his third. Treadwell came off the bench to replace him, and quickly committed his third foul.
Kent State finally made its first 3-pointer (Holt).
Walsh picked up his fourth foul in crashing the boards. Akron has six as a team
The same ref who made questionable calls against Akron is turning heel and calling them now against Kent.
11:55 - Akron 55, Kent State 47
Porrini is really pestering Abreu as Abreu brings the ball up the court. A few years ago, pressure in the backcourt was a great asset for the Flashes. Dambrot pulled Abreu out of the game and gave him a brief cool-down talk/hug.
Holt hit another 3. Kent will need to make some triples to get closer, particularly before Marshall returns to the floor. When Marshall is playing backstop, the Zips guards can get feistier on the perimeter. Marshall is currently on the bench with three fouls.
Marshall and Abreu are back on the court, probably for the rest of the game.
Marshall got an amazing rebound on a bricked 3, probably grabbing the ball 11 feet off the floor.
There is one row of fans in front of press row. And of course, those folks are standing up. Gosh, I'm glad they improved their poor vantage point.
7:56 - Akron 61, Kent State 55
Marshall committed his fourth foul on an alleged moving screen. If that's a moving screen, then you could literally call it on every pick. I think the rules of basketball allow you to breathe while setting a pick.
Treadwell followed suit, and he fouled Holt 25 feet from the basket. Kent State is now shooting one-and-one. Three Zips have four fouls (Marshall, Treadwell and Walsh). Walsh is on the floor with his four. Porrini and Guyton have four fouls for Kent.
I'll be candid. It's hard to sit on press row and not cheer at a game like this.
Dambrot is talking to every referee that comes near him. He is unhappy with how close this game has been called.
Abreu made a big play stripping a Kent State player of the ball on an offensive rebound. It spurred a fast break where Gilliam was fouled. The lead is back to eight.
Kent State is in the double-bonus.
I'm guessing that Marshall will re-enter the game before too lo ... As I typed that, Marshall got off the bench.
Gilliam drove in the lane and hit a big floater. This guy really, really wants the ball.
Akron is working hard to cover Kent's guards on the perimeter. I don't think they mind giving up two's here and there, but it's the 3 that really gets the crowd excited.
2:31 - Akron 71, Kent State 63
OK. It's game time now. For Akron, every stop is huge; every bucket is a killer.
Abreu just broke Kent's backs with a 3 at the end of the shot clock.
Porrini missed one on the other end. Walsh rebound. Marshall will go to the line with a chance to basically seal it.
1:22 - Akron 74, Kent State 65
Marshall badly missed both, but Diggs caused a turnover by Kent State. I love the aggressive defensive attitude when you're winning.
1:09 - Akron 74, Kent State 65
Akron played keep-away for a good chunk of the shot clock before Abreu drove and missed a layup attempt with screwball spin. Cvetinovic fouled Greene on the rebound. Bad move. Greene has been making all of his free throws, including those two.
A show of what kind of person Justin Greene is: Despite facing the end of his career, he helped Abreu get off the floor after a hard foul.
0:39 - Akron 74, Kent State 67
After Abreu missed two more, Akron has missed four straight foul shots. This isn't quite over. Not quite.
Marshall fouled out on the other end.
0:39 - Akron 74, Kent State 68
Porrini missed the second foul shot. Kent got the rebound and kicked it out to Holt for a 3. Wow. Just like that, it's a one-possession game.
0:28 - Akron 74, Kent State 71
On the floor for Akron: Harney, Cvetinovic, Abreu, Diggs and Walsh. Kent attempted to trap Abreu, then fouled Walsh.
All right. Enough of the text messages asking if Cedrick Middleton is Akron's free throw shooting coach.
Walsh made both. But Kent used only 13 seconds to get the ball to Holt, who made another 3. Still not over! Abreu was fouled on the inbounds play.
This does remind me of the Miami bank-shot game.
Abreu made two HUGE foul shots, keeping Kent at arm's length. Timeout Zips.
0:15 - Akron 78, Kent State 74
Abreu is my player of the game so far.
Akron did a fantastic job rotating to the open 3 shooters. They kept Kent from getting a look at 3. Eventually Porrini missed a layup attempt. Treadwell caught the rebound and was fouled with 0.1 seconds left.
Senderoff subbed out his seniors for the final 0.1.
The AK-Rowdies, always the gracious winners, are chanting "Kent State sucks."
Final Score - Akron 78, Kent State 74
That was an exciting game. Kent State simply lacks the firepower this year. That's strange, given the Flashes' four senior starters. You can't discount losing a great coach like Geno Ford. Senderoff has yet to prove he's in the same class of coaches that precede him.
Notable final stats: Holt had a game-high 21 points. Greene scored 20 and grabbed eight rebounds. Cvetinovic had 15. Marshall had eight and eight with two blocks. Porrini had nine assists. Akron shot 55.6 percent. KSU was 58.3 percent. Akron outrebounded the Flashes, 35 to 28.
If you're looking for a goat on Kent State, I don't think you'll find one. Evans only scored two. Porrini missed all three of his 3 attempts and had five turnovers. Those things are minor. Akron got buckets when they needed them. Particularly Abreu and Treadwell. Kent State went on long droughts. Their offense did not have any noticeable pattern, theme or strategy to it.
Here's how you buy your MAC Championship tickets: Either call 1-888-99-AKRON (25766) or visit the ticket office at InfoCision Stadium (located at 375 E. Exchange Street, near Gate 1 at the southwest corner of the venue, at the corner of E. Exchange and S. Union streets). They go on sale at 9 a.m.
"Coach kept us really, really on alert all week. We had short practices, short but hard. We played those guys two times before. There's no secrets. It ultimately comes down to the grind. This year, at this stage, we came through. For the fourth time in four years, I go to the championship game. It's special."
On Greene: "It's been a pleasure competing against that guy. Ultimately, we have a good friendship. He played his heart out for four years for that program. The same for Michael Porrini. It's kind of sad it's over."
On hot start: "The first two games against them, we started off down nine, down eight. We came out ready to play."
On his big 3: "I was ready, mentally. I knew it was going to come down to the end no matter what. When he gave me the ball, I was ready to shoot. I just nailed it."
On whether he'd be motivated based on Kent wanting the rematch: "Absolutely. Porrini made a couple comments that they weren't going to beat us three times in a row."
"It was a terrific game for the fans to watch. It was fun game, up and down, good offense, relatively bad defense. Totally different than the other two, I thought."
"Justin Greene in particular wasn't going to get 'Zeked' again. Porrini showed incredible toughness."
"Our little guy controlled the action for us. He played terrific, made some big steals. I thought Nikola carried us in the first half. I'm particularly proud of Nick Harney. I thought Quincy Diggs played better. I thought Treadwell played normal with toughness."
"I thought Chauncey played really well. I told him to play as hard as he can for three-minute intervals. He's made sacrifices for our team throughout the year and hasn't cut loose offensively. I give him credit for being a winning basketball player."
"Abreu is a guy that has such a tremendous feel as to where to throw the ball. The one thing I'll tell you about Abreu is that you haven't seen anything yet. When he finally gets himself in good shape, he'll be one of the best guards in the country [not a typo]. That's something I've said about another guy (LeBron)."
On not calling the timeout after KSU's spurt: "I have a feel for our team. I felt like, if I let them play through it, mentally it's better for them than calling the timeout."
"I really didn't like the first half as far as them getting easy baskets in transition, points in the paint. They drove it at us as hard as they could drive it. They just came at it. Before, they were kicking it, shooting 3s. I thought it was the best offensively we have played in a month. For about a month, we haven't shot the ball well. We played with a little more fluidity. If McClanahan made three of his jumpers, we could have busted it open. He just didn't."
"I thought Treadwell did a really good job. They key for him is understanding not to foul and defensive discipline. We hung in there with Zeke on the bench. I could get down under four (minutes) before I brought him back."
On Zeke's fouls: "We can't have illegal screens, chucks when the guy isn't even involved in the play, over-the-backs. If we're going to win tomorrow, we have to have him in the game."
"I'm proud of our guys. To go to six championship games is an unbelievable accomplishment. I think about the guys in this program who have taught our guys how to win."
"We have tremendous respect for the next two (teams) also. If you took these four teams and played four different tournaments, I'm not sure you wouldn't have four different winners. We swept Kent in the regular season, Buffalo swept us, Ohio swept Buffalo. Buffalo's really physical. Ohio's really quick with a guy who distributes the ball."
If Ohio wins: "I just hope we play better against Ohio U than we did against them last time."
"Obviously, this was a tough game. They just made a couple more plays than we did -- whether it was an offensive rebound or a big shot. Our kids battled. I couldn't be prouder at how hard they played."
"Credit goes to Akron. They played well. We played well also, just came up a little short."
"To start the second half, we came out the right way. Anytime they needed a big shot or a big play, they made it. You have to give credit to their team and their players. We cut it to five with five minutes to go. Abreu read the play, got it back, and it was back to seven."
On Abreu: "He's a heckuva player and a heckuva competitor."
"We played as hard as we could. We had our chances."
"They did a great job offensive rebounding. They got long ones, put-backs. Our guys played as hard as we can play. Akron beat us at their place. They beat us at our place. They beat us on a neutral floor. It wasn't a lack of execution. It wasn't a lack of effort. It's not like our kids weren't playing hard."
On whether his first season is a success: "We won 21 games. Our senior class, they've had a career where they've played in the postseason every year. It's certainly our goal to go to the NCAA Tournament. It's not our birthright to win. Everybody wants to win. Just like tonight."
"Each game you learn something. Each game, you learn. Hopefully you get better from it. It's something that I'll probably think about a lot more in April. It's not easy to win games. It's not easy to get guys to practice hard. It's not easy. Kent's had unbelievable success. Akron's had unbelievable success. What Keith's doing every year, it's not easy. You have to give him credit. Keith's obviously a very, very good coach. With Coach Coles retiring, Keith is like the dean of the MAC now. His program is at a high level. I don't see it going away while he's coach."
On CIT: "They called us last week and invited us."
On lack of at-large consideration for MAC: "I don't know the answer to that. It's part of what I told our kids in the locker room. We're 21-11. We play our butts off. We try to compete against people. In this league, when you don't win the league or the conference tournament, you play in the CIT Tournament or the CBI. If you're in the Big Ten, eight out of 12 teams play in the postseason. Here, the pressure for the No. 1 seed is enormous. I think Keith has the right type of team to deal with that pressure. They have a loosey-goosey type of group."
On his seniors: "It's not easy in the locker room thanking them for their work and how hard they played. It's not an easy thing to do. But every year, you have to do it. Your kid graduate. It's part of college basketball."
On offensive nature of the game: "Akron made the huge plays down the stretch. Credit to them. They're a real, real good team. They played well together. They beat us tonight."
"Abreu with the big steal when we were down five with a chance to cut it to two. They made all the plays. That steal. The long offensive rebound to Abreu. He got it to Treadwell."
"I think we got a game in the CIT. We just got to get ready to play that."
"We wasn't gonna quit because we were down. Randal made some big shots to get us back in the game down the stretch. I love all my guys, regardless win or lose. We had a great season. We had a great run."
"We just got to move on and approach this (CIT) game like seniors, not like freshmen. I'm going to give it all I got."
"They're a tough team. We made a run. They made a run. We made a little run at the end but they were able to keep the lead. Hopefully they go far in the tournament. All respect goes to them. Good luck to them."
On whether he regrets his guarantee on the win: "That's what I'm supposed to do as the point guard and leader of the team. If we play them I fourth time, I'd say it again."
On what Akron players said after the game: "They told us not to hang our heads. Most importantly, we told them good luck. Hopefully they can go along and represent the MAC conference very well."