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Liveblog -- MAC Championship

By mrasor Published: March 14, 2009

Men's basketball

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    Read below about Jenna Compton, who won a national championship for the rifle team today. Unfortunately, she will be overshadowed by the basketball team potentially earning a chance to enter a field of 65 for the NCAA Tournament.
    The referees are Terry Wymer, Mike Sanzere and Bo Boroski.
    Last season, the curtain was removed for portions of the upper deck. That was Akron-Kent, of course. This year, they are going with the standard lower bowl-only look.
    Jeff Boals is wearing an electric orange shirt and tie. I assume that the coaches wear their "A" suit for conference championships, or something that has some significance. I will have to ask him why bright orange is tonight's choice.
    If you're unlucky enough to be stuck at home, here is your gameplan: Set up your computer next to your big-screen TV. Have two Internet windows open. One for my blog. One for the chat at ZipsNation.org. Refresh your pages frequently. It should be a fun night.
    The media buffet here is phenomenal. You can go to a nice restaurant and not get quality food like that. Tonight, they have a seafood and rice medley that I wish I could eat every day the rest of my life. Oysters, scallops, shrimp, sausage, mmmm!
    If you look at the Bulls' jerseys, you'll see a number 3407 on the top right. It is to commemorate the 11 people who died on Flight 3407 that crashed outside of Buffalo on Feb. 2.
    Which program has the biggest ghost? Doug Penno iced the Zips two years ago. Four years ago, Buffalo lost the championship game to Ohio on a last second tip-in.
    Akron starters are the same as last night. Buffalo starters: Rodney Pierce, Mitchell Watt, Calvin Betts, Titus Robinson and Greg Gamble. They turned out the lights at The Q for introductions. This the first time all week for that.
    I finished my third plate of food. I'm relieved that they broke down the buffet before I had the option for No. 4.
    It's difficult not to cheer on press row in big games. A guy beside me yesterday cracked when he pumped his fist after Bowling Green took the lead. I don't blame him. Some writers truly are impartial, but if you're covering your alma mater, it's hard to maintain the appearance of impartiality.
    My dad is watching tonight's game. He is a perfect example of an alumnus who won't care until the Zips are headed to the Big Dance. You will see these people pop up by the hundreds if Akron wins tonight.
    Buffalo committed a shot clock violation following a timeout. That is bad coaching or bad listening.
    Steve McNees has improved his defense. He blocked a potential game-changing 3 attempt last night. He is moving his feet much better and slapping the ball away more often.
    Humpty Hitchens entered at the 16 minute mark and immediately impacted the game. He drilled a 3 on the next possession, stole the ball and scored a layup. What a story it would be for him to return and lead the Zips to a championship. These nights are easy for sports columnists.
    Gamble has all seven of Buffalo's points.
    I said this before, but I admire the coaches' strategy for Hitchens. A 50 percent Hitchens would not make a difference on Thursday or Friday, but a 80 percent Hitchens could turn the game on Saturday. Smart move.
    Brett McKnight has played well so far, with four points and two rebounds. Remember how McKnight played at home against Kent State and on the road vs. Pitt? He has proven to play much better in big games.
    My mind takes me back to early December when the Plain Dealer's Elton Alexander pointed to Akron's bench and said, "There's your MAC Champions." Alexander watches a lot of college basketball and has followed the MAC for a long time. His secret to predictions is talking to referees who work exhibition games.
    Another point about Hitchens: He is more valuable in crunch time. He also hates two things, the devil and losing. One might argue that the Bulls have satanic horns.
    I have never seen Akron play such sturdy defense. It almost seems as if the Zips know what play Buffalo plans to run. Mike Bardo and Max Boudreau have a sideshow in the post, playing "Who can break the other's coccyx."
    Buffalo is shooting 5-of-14. Like Bowling Green last night, the Bulls have missed a few tap-in putts. Akron is 5-of-10.
    Buffalo's jerseys look like they came off the rack at K-Mart. The numbers aren't sewn on. The name on the back looks like a cheap iron-on job. They have a Nike Swoosh, but they don't have the LeBron James mandate that goes something like this: "Hook up Keith Dambrot's team with the coolest uniforms you can design." The last I heard, the Zips will have new jerseys next season, and they will hold the LJ23 logo, rather than the Swoosh.
    Akron has McNees, McKnight, McKnight, McFadden (director of basketball operations, Rick) and McClanahan. Did somebody say, "McAdvertising opportunity"?
    Hitchens demeanor is that of a confident senior playing a nonconference game, not a true freshman returning from an ankle injury in the MAC Championship. When Hitchens is a senior, he will be a phenomenal leader and floor general. What is the over-under on alley-oops between Hitchens and Zeke Marshall between 2009 and 2012? Seventy-five? One-hundred?
    The Cavaliers' J.J. Hickson is sitting in a loge.
    Hitchens is en fuego. He has 10 points. Until he misses a heat check, he should keep chuckin'.
    The scoreboard wished a happy birthday to Mike Rodriguez, Akron's associate AD for finance. I second that.
    The halftime show was a basketball game between a bunch of mascots: Mr. Peanut, a giant Oreo, Victor E. Bull, Zippy, Charlie Cardinal (Ball State), and two Bowling Green Falcons (male and female). Zippy scored the game's first point by cherry picking. The Oreo broke the mascot's code of silence. He is talking all kinds of smack.
    Speaking of mascots, below is a video from this year's NBA All-Star Weekend. The Milwaukee Bucks mascot took a bad fall and tore his/her ACL.

    Halftime stats of note: Hitchens and Brett McKnight each have a game-high 10 points. Nate Linhart has six rebounds. Akron is shooting 55 percent. Buffalo is shooting 38 percent.
    Akron started the half with a 7-2 run. The Zips are getting much easier shots than the Bulls, particularly when Buffalo runs the floor. Akron opened up a 13-point lead. A few more unanswered buckets and Reggie Witherspoon will start to sweat.
    A McNees 3 gave Akron a 16-point lead. The Bulls must keep it within 15. The next goal is bringing it to eight. Then to five. Here is my secret formula: A team has no shot when its deficit reaches (minutes left x 2) + 6. There are 15 minutes left now, and Buffalo is down 16. The lead would need to be 36 for it to be practically a done deal.
    Nik Cvetinovic committed an offensive foul. He has three fouls. I'm surprised no one helped Cvetinovic get up off the floor.
    They are circulating the ballots for All-Tournament Team. Here are my certain choices: Linhart and Nate Miller. Here are my "maybes." Hitchens, Darryl Roberts, Chris McKnight, Brett McKnight, Laron Frazier, Gamble and Rodney Pierce.
    You know what? Hitchens deserves it solely for the Toledo game. Coming back tonight and scoring double figures is gravy. Pierce and Gamble have been alternatively on-and-off, so neither really deserves it. Frazier was consistently good for a semifinalist, so he's in, too.
    The last slot is going to a third Zip. I have until the four-minute mark to turn this in, so I'll see who impresses me most until then.
    Witherspoon caught a loose ball on the sidelines and quickly fired it at the ref. The two had a laugh about it.
    Buffalo just caught a breeze of momentum. Linhart missed the front end of a one-and-one. Byron Mulkey hit a 3 to cut the lead to 13.
    Bardo and Titus Robinson got mixed up. I swear, every night Bardo gets in somebody's face.
    Akron would be the first No. 5 seed to win the MAC Tournament.
    Buffalo will make a run. After the most recent timeout, the Bulls showed some better composure. I think Witherspoon convinced them they need to take it one possession at a time. Just get a good shot, and then focus on getting a stop. Don't worry about the spread until the last two minutes.
    Akron reached the one-and-one. Roberts is shooting, so it doesn't matter. He made both. Buffalo will be shooting two at the Zips' next foul.
    Bardo has an insane fear of being blocked. When he catches the ball in the post, he must go right up, not look around and pump fake three times because that will get you swatted.
    I gave my final spot to Brett McKnight for his play tonight. Linhart is my MVP.
    Bardo blew four straight free throws, allowing Buffalo to cut Akron's lead to 12.
    Cvetinovic fouled out. The Bulls can cut it to 10 at the line with 3:51 left. That would be a workable deficit.
    Akron is still shooting 55 percent from the field. Who ever would have imagined that the Zips' shooting could improve late in the MAC Tournament, when even good-shooting teams fade from fatigue?
    Buffalo is playing a 3-2 zone. The fans are getting into it. They realize, as I do, that ever point is one inch closer to the Big Dance. Brett McKnight made one of two free throws. Akron is up 11 with 2:30 left.
    If Akron makes its free throws, this game is over. The Zips, however, are five of their last six.
    Roberts hit the biggest shot of the game with a 3 that extended Akron's lead to 12 with 2:40 left. Buffalo ran 40 seconds off the clock on a worthless possession. That should clinch it. Zips are up 12 with two minutes to play, which satisfies my formula.
    Holy crap. It's sinking in that Akron is going to the Big Dance. Unbelievable. I had this feeling for a few minutes in 2007, but it looks like this MAC Championship game won't have any surprises.
    Brett McKnight splashed a 3 for good measure. The Zips lead is 15 with 49 seconds left. Time to celebrate. I'm going downtown Akron for that purpose after the game.
    And this was a rebuilding year?! Rebuilding year? You don't win MAC Championships in rebuilding years.
    I can think of five people who also deserve MAC Championship rings: Romeo Travis, Dru Joyce, Jeremiah Wood, Nick Dials and Cedrick Middleton (although Ced will get one anyways). These are the players who built Akron's winning tradition and helped to groom Chris McKnight and Linhart to eventually complete the step they came so close to completing.
    On the sideline with 22 seconds left, Dambrot gave Boals a double high five. Until this tournament, I never saw Dambrot celebrate openly. He knows how huge this accomplishment is. The Brett McKnight free throw parade continues. Buffalo hasn't given up, despite being down 14 with 16 seconds left.
    The team celebrated at midcourt. Cvetinovic stood on the chairs and pumped his fist for the fans. Good for you, Keith Dambrot. Your career has taken you to the lowest of lows. This year is vindication for you and strong proof that you cannot keep a good coach down.
    Next stop: The Big Dance. The Selection Show is tomorrow at 6 p.m. There is a viewing party at Ohio Brewing Company between 4 and 8 p.m. Dambrot will be there.
    Linhart is your MAC Tournament MVP. Well deserved. He didn't dominate, but there was no other choice in my mind. He provided so many intangibles, but he also filled the stat sheet. The other members of the All-Tournament team are: Boudreau, McNees, Brett McKnight and Nate Miller.
    Final stats of note: Brett McKnight was the high scorer with 16. Linhart had nine rebounds. McNees had five assists. Akron was 57 percent on 3s (8-of-14) and 55 percent overall from the field. Buffalo was 19 percent on 3s (3-of-16) and 37 percent overall. Buffalo had seven assists and 15 turnovers. Akron had 11 of both. Buffalo won the rebounding battle, 34 to 27.
    Final score -- Buffalo 53, Akron 65

    Quotes...
    Reggie Witherspoon
    "They came out and played an aggressive game, a very physical game. They came out and shot it like I haven't seen them shoot it all season. We never settled down offensively.would hit some shots. We'd come down and try to rush. They played like they've been here before."
    "They got hot. They made some tough shots, some fallaways. When they got hot, we seemed to want to get back and take the first shot that was available. It broke our concentration a little bit. Some of the shots we got were good shots and we weren't able to knock them down."
    "We were co-champions of the conference. It was the first time we've done that. When you look back, it was a great sason. Almost every game, we had a chance to get a win."
    "Coming in, we thought we had a chance."
    "The biggest thing that hurt us was that we got into a rush when they got hot. A couple of our guys wanted to come right back and answer right away. When those initial shots don't go in, the momentum swings the other way."
    "We tried to go small to give us a chance to get back in the game."
    "We didn't have a guy who would come out and score a whole lot of points. What got us here was defense and rebounding. We weren't able to defend and get them stopped. They shot open 3s like they were free throws, and for a while, they were shooting free throws like they were layups."
    Rodney Pierce "was a little gassed. It has worn him down, but we can't use that as an excuse. This is Akron's fourth game."
    The McKnight brothers "have been tough on everybody. They don't have to get low-post position to score. They're really good in the mid-post. You can keep them out of the post and still be in trouble. That was a big issue."
    "The game was more physical than what Mitch (Watt) was ready for tonight. It's unusual to be competing for conference championships and be rolling out two freshmen like that (Watt and Titus Robinson)."
    Akron "manhandled Bowling Green on the glass. They didn't manhandle us, but they were really good at taking away position."
    Greg Gamble
    "They did a pretty good job of being physical. It took us out of our rhythm a little bit."
    Max Boudreau
    "They play hard. Give credit to Akron."
    "It comes down to you have to make shots, no matter how the defenders play."
    Calvin Betts
    "As a program, we pride ourselves on being a good defensive team and a good defensive rebounding team. We feel that we can outrebound anybody."
    On next year's plan: "Play with poise. Don't let the other team dictate what you do."
    "I felt Akron had a good rhythm with their offense."
    Keith Dambrot
    "I thought we played our best basketball the last three games of the year. It's ironic that we struggled so much that first night and really should have been out of here. It's been 23 years since we've been to the NCAA Tournament, and that's the reason I'm coach at the University of Akron, Number 23 (LeBron)."
    "These guys reaped the benefits, but those guys (former players) put in the labor to make it a good program."
    "First off, I'm very fortunate to coach. Whenever I get depressed, I think my comeback is surreal. I shouldn't have any right to coach now. I'm fortunate. I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to show people. I took a big risk when I came back as an assistant. I made peanuts (for salary). It's unbelievable to coach at the university you attended."
    "It was a typical MAC Tournament. There was no clear-cut team that could win it. It could be anybody. I've said it all year long. It's all intangibles, will to win, guys willing to make sacrifices."
    "We had a rough year shooting the ball. I thought this was a good shooting team."
    "We were 9-8 and everytime we put ourselves in position, we'd have another bump in the road. The one thing I'll tell you, in my five years, this was the easiest group to coach -- guys that cared about one another."
    "Guys like McNees and Darryl Roberts have had their ups and downs in their career and in life. (McNees) was really good. He has had a very difficult season. He has to feel good about himself. I think I probably did a poor job with him. I'm not the most warm and fuzzy guy in the world."
    "I felt good for our guys. You have to realize as a coach that it's not about you. It's about the players. I was really happy for the other guys who have played for us the last five years."
    Buffalo's team "is built a lot like ours. I think Reggie is an unbelievable coach. That guy was a good enough coach to darn near win the tournament three years ago. They have built it the same way as us, with high school guys and high-character guys."
    "They have a really good system. They probably have the best system in the league. We've played it so many times that we figured out what to do and what not to do."
    "We covered their guards and said their big guys are going to have to beat us."
    "I didn't know coming into the game whether he (Hitchens) was going to play at all. He didn't say anything to me. This guy is not afraid to make mistakes. He threw him out there and rolled the dice. I think he played on adrenaline early and favored it (his ankle) at the end."
    "We practice there all week (at Cleveland State). He's the god of Northeast Ohio. Northeast Ohio basketball is good. We may win one in the pros, too."
    "When we won seven games in a row, I thought we had the corner turned. Then we went phffff. They had some kind of mojo where they don't let stuff bother them. We play good enough defense to win. I knew if we ever straightened ourselves out offensively..."
    "We've only really gotten blown out twice. We had Rhode Island to six points and they blew us out. In Pittsburgh's gym, we brought it back. I can't control (the seeding). Hopefully, we will get a team that whose style we can handle. If we don't we don't."
    Nate Linhart
    "It's everything I expected and then some. I'm so proud of everything about this team. We never know when to quit. We have so much resolve."
    "I'd be lying to you if I said I wasn't tired. I'm dead right now."
    "At the start of the tournament, we stepped back from the Kent game. We had a sports psychologist visit us in the beginning of the year. It just so happened that he came back. He's been with us the past three, four days. We talked about what we talked about back then. We had an unbelievable belief in ourselves."
    Steve McNees
    "I had a lot of fun. With Hump going down, it gave me a chance to step up. I was just trying not to mess up."
    "It was a rough year for me, shooting the ball."
    "Like what Nate said, sometimes our youth can kill us, but it can also help us. We're young and dumb. We were ready for whatever run they were going to bring at us."
    "We're playing our best ball. We have a lot of skilled guys and a lot of guys who can shoot. It just started clicking."
    Brett McKnight
    On the Toledo win: "It gave us unbelievable confidence. Never give up. Just fight hard. Even when we get tired, coach says, 'Dig down deep.'"
    "This moment right now is unbelievable. It's something that everybody dreams of. I still have one more year with Chris, and I think we can do it again."
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