CLEVELAND: The Mid-American Conference Tournament title banner will have to wait another year for the University of Akron women’s basketball team after an 86-68 loss to Central Michigan in the championship game Saturday afternoon at Quicken Loans Arena.
The Chippewas (21-11) were bigger, faster and more athletic than the Zips, a team that has little to apologize for considering the season it had.
There will be tears and perhaps a look at what could have been done differently. Ultimately, what Central Michigan accomplished on the inside tells the tale.
The Chippewas made it look easy from the start with back-door cuts and layups for which the Zips and coach Jodi Kest had no answer. The Chippewas’ first 24 points all came within 5 feet of the basket.
In the second half, they complemented their inside game with 6-of-13 shooting from beyond the 3-point arc to take control.
“[We] didn’t play very well today because I thought Central Michigan was the better team and they got rebounds when they needed,” Kest said. “I thought they gave effort and they gave everything they had.”
“It was more emotional than the first,” forward Rachel Tecca, an all-tournament team selection, said of the second game of the season between the two teams. Central Michigan won the first game 92-69.
That game was a blowout in favor of the Chippewas.
This time around, the Zips (23-9) gave them as much as they could, but it still wasn’t enough.
“Any time we play a great athletic team, an aggressive team, it’s not a great matchup for us,” Kest said. “But I thought we hung in there good today. Down the stretch, they were making shots and we weren’t making shots.”
A sense of foreboding might have set in for the Zips when tournament Most Valuable Player Crystal Bradford, who had been in foul trouble, returned for the first half’s last 19 seconds.
The Zips had her smothered just beyond the arc with time running out. She hurled a shot from beyond the arc that dropped through the hoop with one second left on the clock to give Central Michigan a 39-35 halftime lead.
Although they returned with some energy in the second half, the Zips could never really get into any flow.
The Zips’ struggles were compounded by the hot shooting of the Chippewas, who shot 50 percent from the floor in the second half.
The Zips made their stabs at trying to get something going, but the Chippewas had the momentum and held it.
“I think they were more athletic and they rebound really well,” said Hanna Luburgh, the Zips’ second representative on the all-tournament team. “We can’t outjump them so we didn’t box out really well.”
After three games in three days, Luburgh, who averaged more than 24 points for the tournament, confessed that fatigue had set in, given the torrid pace at which the Zips play.
They’ll get to rest before a possible berth in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament. Bids will be announced Monday night for play beginning Wednesday.
Should they make it, the Zips take with them experience gained from the program finally getting to play in big games after years of futility.
“Losing today is just more motivation for us in the WNIT,” Tecca said, “and in the future to work hard every day in practice. We’re definitely going to have a mission. We definitely want to be back here and in the championship.”
“This sets the stage for us,” she said. “We know now what it’s like to be here and we want to get back here.”
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.