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MAC Quarterfinals Recap: Akron rolls on while Ball State, Ohio, and Kent State survive close calls

Kent State pulled off the tournament’s first upset in its quarterfinal win over Buffalo.

NCAA Basketball: Akron at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The MAC Tournament moved to Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland for the quarterfinal round on Thursday night. The night was filled with some close games and, finally, an upset. Here is a summary of the night’s action:

(1) Akron 79, (8) Eastern Michigan 62

Akron head coach Keith Dambrot offered up a simple assessment of winning basketball following his team’s quarterfinal win over Eastern Michigan: “It usually comes down to the teams that get the most spurts and the biggest spurts.”

That statement was certainly true of his Zips on Thursday night.

Akron closed the game on a 22-9 run, turning a slim four-point lead with five minutes to play into a 17-point win. That big spurt was triggered by a 9-0 run which took place in a little less than a minute of game time, and put the game out of reach.

Newly-minted MAC Player of the Year Isaiah Johnson put up 24 points to lead Akron, along with 10 rebounds and three blocks. Johnson’s presence in the paint helped limit Eastern Michigan to just 36.8 percent shooting. Also, six of his rebounds came on the offensive end to create extra possessions.

Johnson did, however, play 37 minutes in the quarterfinal win. Dambrot sarcastically lamented that fact in his postgame remarks and said “I didn’t have any choice.” Whether the heavy usage negatively impacts Johnson in Akron’s semifinal matchup with Ball State on Friday is something to watch.

(4) Ball State 66, (5) Western Michigan 63

Ball State scrapped its way to a win over streaking Western Michigan. The Broncos had won nine consecutive games before falling to the Cardinals.

Ball State had to play much of the game without starting point guard Tayler Persons, after a collision with a teammate forced him to exit the game early. Persons, who is Ball State’s most heavily utilized player offensively according to KenPom, only played nine minutes before being forced out.

The injury required Francis Kiapway to step into point guard duties. Kiapway filled in well, leading the Cardinals in scoring with 16 points. Teammate Franko House, who chipped in 14 points and nine rebounds, credited past experience for Kiapway’s success on Thursday night.

“Francis played point guard for us last year, so that was big. He stepped right in where he left off last year and gave us a win,” House said.

Despite Kiapway’s capable substitution at point guard, the game was very much in doubt in the final minute. Western Michigan’s Thomas Wilder (24 points) tied the game at 63 with his fourth three. Neither team made a field goal in the game’s final minute. Rather, Ball State hit three free throws to bring the game to its final score. The Cardinals also missed three free throws over that span, but the Broncos could not make them pay.

The Cardinals will have their hands full on Friday night with top-seeded Akron. Whether Persons can return could be vital to Ball State’s upset hopes. Postgame, Ball State head coach James Whitford said that Persons was being evaluated for a concussion. “If everything is fine, he will be suiting up and playing tomorrow,” he said.

(2) Ohio 67, (7) Toledo 66

Late game heroics from Kenny Kaminski helped Ohio avoid the tournament’s first upset. Kaminski sunk a jumper with only a few seconds left on the clock to secure the quarterfinal victory for the Bobcats.

Toledo jumped out to an early lead with hot outside shooting. The Rockets led by 15 at one point in the first half following a Luke Knapke three. The three ball kept the Rockets in the game even as Ohio chipped away and eventually took the lead in the second half. Toledo ended the game with 11 made threes.

But, the efforts of two Bobcats prevented the quarterfinal upset. Jaaron Simmons finished with 24 points to pace Ohio while freshman Jason Carter scored 19 points and pulled down 12 rebounds. The two were also pivotal in the game’s final moments to help secure the win.

Simmons pulled the defense in just enough with a drive to set up Kaminski for the game-winning basket. Then, on the ensuing possession, Toledo was unable to respond with a game winner largely due to Carter’s defense. Ohio head coach Saul Phillips gave Carter credit for that defense following the game.

“I thought the biggest play there was Jason Carter’s help. I thought he came over and walled up nicely outside of the restricted area,” Phillips said.

Ohio will face Kent State in Friday night’s semifinal with whom they split their regular season series. The Bobcats will likely need to improve their perimeter shooting to continue advancing. as they only managed to shoot 22.7 percent from three on Thursday night.

(6) Kent State 68, (3) Buffalo 65

The first upset of the MAC Tournament came in the last quarterfinal played on Thursday night as sixth-seeded Kent State knocked off Buffalo.

The Golden Flashes led for most of the game, but nearly fell apart coming down the stretch. A technical foul on Jaylin Walker allowed Buffalo to make it a single possession game with a little over two and a half minutes to play. The play resulted in four free throws for the Bulls and Walker fouling out of the game.

At that point, momentum seemed to have shifted towards Buffalo. But the Bulls were never quite able to fully close the gap. A missed heave from three at the final buzzer missed the mark and Kent State held on for the win.

Neither team shot the ball well from the field in what became a free throw battle. The two teams combined to commit 56 fouls in the game, resulting in 75 free throw attempts. The disjointed nature of the game may have been caused by all of the foul calls breaking up the flow of the offenses. Both teams were an identical 18-of-51 from the field.

Kent State advances to face the second-seeded Ohio in a match up of teams that survived close calls in the quartefinals. Friday night’s game will be Kent State’s third this week, so fatigue may be more of a factor for the Golden Flashes.