CLEVELAND: They’re certainly not living on a prayer, but the University of Akron women’s basketball team apparently likes living on the edge.
The Zips used a 9-0 run and an outstanding effort from forward Hanna Luburgh to move on to their first Mid-American Conference Tournament championship game after beating Ball State 70-61 on Friday afternoon at Quicken Loans Arena. UA will play Central Michigan (20-11) at 1 p.m. today at the arena.
Luburgh led all players with a double-double of 33 points and 12 rebounds. Teammate Taylor Ruper added 12 points on 4-of-7 shooting from behind the 3-point arc. Point guard Kacie Cassell kept her teammates in the flow with 11 assists.
With Ruper setting the tone offensively in the first half, the Zips built an 11-point halftime lead.
Ruper’s 3-pointers were among the keys to victory for the Zips (23-8).
It was a noticeable difference from Ruper’s first game in the tournament when she attempted only two shots.
“Usually it just depends on the game,” she said. “Today they left me open and my job is to shoot when I’m open and that’s what I did.”
Luburgh was the other difference maker because the Zips needed others to step up for MAC Player of the Year Rachel Tecca, who once again dealt with two or sometimes three defenders throughout the game.
“They’re always going to guard Rachel tough; she’s MAC Player of the Year,” Ruper said. “It wasn’t a surprise for us and Hanna stepped up. She’s been playing great all year. I know I want to get the ball to her if the game is on the line.”
Although Luburgh torched Ball State (15-15) for those 33 points, Cardinals coach Brady Sallee offered no regrets in post-game interviews and suggested that Central Michigan use the same strategy in today’s championship game.
“You can call that stubborn, or you can call that somebody who believes the game’s won in the paint and come hell or high water we’re going to keep it out of the paint,” Sallee said. “We did that all year; teams just couldn’t throw it in there and score against us. At their place when we lost to them Rachel hurt us a little bit, some offensive boards, some pieces where we broke down. We were bound and determined not to let that happen.”
Central Michigan, which defeated top-seeded Toledo in Friday’s first game, will be a handful. It defeated UA 92-69 at Central Michigan in the only regular-season meeting between the two teams.
The Chippewas like to run and so do the Zips.
When UA coach Jodi Kest was asked if she was concerned about fatigue after back-to-back games, she said the Chippewas have the same problem.
In that respect, they’re even, but Ruper and Luburgh know what will be required for the Zips to win.
“Truthfully, I think it’s going to be an offensive game the whole game. It’s going to be back-and-forth,” Ruper said. “They’re a great team. We’re a great team. It’s going to be a battle.”
Luburgh offered a different perspective.
“We need defense,” she said. “The dribble drive killed us the last time.”
Kest didn’t want to talk about the championship game.
“I’m going to enjoy it,” she said. “I’m going to look back and watch some tape today of this game then watch some tape of Central Michigan the last four or five games and figure out what we need to do because every game is different.”
Considering that she and her team have the opportunity to continue a season of firsts — first 20-win season, first MAC East Division title, first MAC Tournament title game and first MAC Player of the Year (Tecca) — for the women’s program, who could blame her?
“I’m really still a little shocked,” she said. “We expected to be here, but what a great feeling. The celebration in the locker room [wasn’t] a celebration of jumping up and down. I’m really proud of those kids because they know there is one more game left.”
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Zips blog at http://www.ohio.com/zips. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.