CLEVELAND -- The Akron Zips will once again do battle for the Mid-American Conference Tournament crown, but getting there was anything but easy for the regular-season champions.
The top-seeded Zips (26-7) earned their way back to the MAC Tournament Championship Game for the second straight year by hitting enough of their free throws in the final minute to secure a 74-70 victory over the upset-minded Ball State Cardinals in semifinal action at Quicken Loans Arena Friday night.
Thanks to hot-shooting nights from the perimeter and interior, as well as points off of early turnovers, the Zips led for the entire game against the Cardinals, and by virtue of the win, will do battle with the Ohio Bobcats or Kent State Golden Flashes in Saturday night’s MAC Championship Game.
Under Dambrot, Akron has qualified for nine MAC Championship Game appearances in the last 11 years.
Akron had three players score in double figures, led by point guard Antino Jackson’s 19 on eight-of-15 shooting, including a three-for-six mark from three-point range. Additionally, center Isaiah Johnson (19) and forward Kwan Cheatham, Jr. (11) reached double figures in scoring.
Quite unlike how they started their quarterfinal victory over the Eastern Michigan Eagles Thursday, the Zips came out firing on all cylinders, and after Cheatham buried a three-pointer from NBA range and gave Akron 7-0 lead, the Cardinals called for a timeout just 75 seconds into the game.
The 30-second break in the action did little to quell Akron’s run, however, as Jackson gave the Zips a 10-point advantage, 13-3, when he knocked down a three-pointer from the top of the key with 16:41 to play in the first half.
With 5:20 to play in the half, Akron pushed its lead out to 14 points, 33-19, when Jackson again knocked down a three-pointer, but Ball State had an answer in the form of an 8-0 run over the next 3:40 thanks to back-to-back triples from House and Tahjai Teague.
However, several late-half turnovers from Ball State allowed the Zips to get the advantage back up to nine points, 39-30, heading into the halftime break.
Although Akron quickly found themselves back up by double digits at the start of the second half, the Cardinals would not go away and trimmed the deficit down to two points, 47-45, when Francis Kiapway buried a three-pointer with 10:31 to play in regulation.
But the Zips fought back against the Cardinals, and went on a 7-1 run over the next two minutes to push the advantage back up to eight points, 54-46.
When Ball State again cut the deficit down to four points, Akron responded with a quick 4-0 run, capped off by a pair of layups from Jackson. The first of the two layups gave Jackson 1,000 points for his career with the Zips.
With Ball State hitting several late-game three-pointers, the Zips had to lock up the semifinal matchup at the free-throw line, where they went four for four over the final 31 seconds of play.
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