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.
“This whole year, we’ve been in a lot of close games, and we were able to close them out,” said Jackson, who led the way with 19 points for the Zips against Ball State. “We’ve just got to make the plays. That’s what Coach tells us. Come to practices, playing hard, got to make all the plays at the end of the game, that’s how you win it.”
Unlike how they started their quarterfinal victory over the Eastern Michigan Eagles Thursday, the Zips came out firing on all cylinders, and after Kwan Cheatham, Jr. buried a three-pointer from NBA range and gave Akron 7-0 lead, the Cardinals called 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 Franko 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 halftime.
“Well, everybody knows it starts with Big Dog, and our team expects him to make the right play every time, so we feed off of him,” Jackson said of center Isaiah Johnson. “When Coach calls a play, we just run the play and get it where we fit it.”
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 hit 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 his 1,000th career point 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.
“I feel the same,” Jackson said. “I got a little bit more confidence, but I already know I was capable, you know. Like the guys say all the time, they know I can do that. I just stay within the team, and when it’s my time to explode, that’s when I’m going to do it.”
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