Zips take home first ever MAC championship

By: DJ Johnson

Friday was a night of number ones for Akron men’s basketball program.

Their 61-55 victory over Kent State gave the Zips their first Mid-American Conference regular season title and the No. 1 seed in the upcoming MAC Tournament.

“I think the one thing we have is that we know how to win,” said Akron Head Coach Keith Dambrot.

UA, down 27-18 at the half, started the second 20 minutes on 22-2 run. The nine-point deficit turned into a 40-29 lead with 11:32 remaining in the game, allowing the Zips (21-10, 13-3 MAC) to hold off the Flashes (20-10, 16-6) for the six-point win.

“When you are only down nine you have a good chance,” Dambrot said. “We are both streak-a-holics. Whoever could get on a roll was going to win.”

The Flashes got the best of the streakiness in the first half, building an 18-10 lead with nine minutes remaining. The Zips then had an 8-0 run to knot the game at 18, but Kent closed the final five minutes on a 9-0 run.

UA finished 7-of-25 (28 percent) from the floor in the first half, 0-of-7 from three-point range and had 14 turnovers.

“We were so bad offensively,” Dambrot said. “They hit the same problems in the second half.”

The scoring spurts continued after halftime as Akron opened up the second half with a 12-0 run of their own. During the run, Akron hit 5-of-7 shots while Kent went 0-of-7.

The Flashes scored their first bucket with 15:03 remaining, but the Zips responded with 10-0 run to push the lead to 40-29 with 11:32 to go in the game.

Kent refused to go away, closing the lead to 47-42 with 3:47 left, but five straight points by junior Chauncey Gilliam gave the Zips room to breathe.

Akron hit 7-of-9 free throws down the stretch to seal the win.

“We had to respond. We had to put up or shut up,” Dambrot said.

Dambrot relied on a group of veterans to complete the second half comeback, and they responded with an overwhelming 43-28 advantage for the second 20 minutes.

Gilliam, along with Zeke Marhsall, led Akron with 12 points. Alex Abreu and Brian Walsh each hit double figures with 10.

Kent’s Michael Porrini led all scorers with 14.

The win gives Akron a bye all the way to semifinals of this week’s MAC Tournament.

“In the grand scheme of things, this is a small prize,” said senior Nik Cvetinovic. “You still have to go to Cleveland.”

The Zips will not play until Friday, where a potential rematch with Kent lies. If the Flashes can win their quarterfinal game on Thursday, the two schools will meet Friday at 7 p.m.

“It all comes down to two games,” Cvetinovic said.

The MAC Championship game is set for an 8 p.m. tipoff on Saturday night.