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MAC Semifinals Recap: Akron and Kent State advance

The Zips and the Golden Flashes used dominant post play to survive and advance.

NCAA Basketball: Las Vegas Classic-Southern Methodist vs Kent State Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports

The MAC Tournament did not disappoint on Thursday night with close finishes in the quarterfinal round. The semifinals on Friday night saw much of the same, with two games that went down to the wire:

(1) Akron 74, (4) Ball State 70

Top-seeded Akron held off Ball State to advance to the MAC championship game. Akron never trailed in the game despite Ball State keeping things close late into the second half.

Akron got off to a scorching start, opening up 7-0 lead in the game’s first 75 seconds. Kwan Cheatham Jr. led the charge out of the gate, scoring all eight of his first half points in the game’s first two and a half minutes.

From there, Isaiah Johnson went to work for the Zips. Johnson found success backing down defenders in the post when not double teamed. When he was double teamed, he was able to pass out of the trap, tallying five assists in the game. Some of Johnson’s success can be traced to Ball State’s Trey Moses being limited due to foul trouble. Moses, the MAC’s leading shot blocker during conference play, was only on the court for nine minutes in the first half and was limited in the second half with four fouls as well. That opened up space for Johnson to work, and he finished with 19 points.

Akron’s early lead would hold throughout the game, but Ball State was able to stay within striking distance in the second half due to hot perimeter shooting. The Cardinals hit 13 three pointers at a 44.8 percent clip. Francis Kiapway and Tahjai Teague combined for seven of those makes, and were able to pull Ball State back into the game whenever it seemed Akron was pulling away. Keith Dambrot talked about Ball State’s tenacity after the game.

“We delivered about four knockout punches and we staggered them,” he said. “We just couldn’t put them out.”

Ultimately, Akron did hold on for the win, and turnovers by Ball State at some critical junctures played a role in that. Incredibly, Ball State’s Tayler Persons was able to play just a day after suffering a brutal-looking injury.

The concern was that Persons suffered a concussion, and he spent time in the hospital after the injury. Persons’ injury may have played a role in some of his four turnovers. Ball State coach James Whitford praised Persons for his toughness and acknowledged the team was better off with him on the floor. But he also conceded that “he (Persons) wasn’t his true self out there today. Some of the advanced passes that he threw were uncharacteristic.”

Akron advanced to the MAC Championship game with the win. They will face Kent State on Saturday night.

(6) Kent State 68, (2) Ohio 66

Kent State needed two wild wins just to get to Friday night’s semifinal game. They came back to beat Central Michigan in overtime by a final of 116-106. They then held on to upset Buffalo in a game that featured 56 fouls and 75 free throw attempts.

They got another wild win on Friday night when they upset second-seeded Ohio to advance to the MAC championship game. It looked as if the Golden Flashes would ice the game late, but Ohio fought back and made it a one-point game on a Kenny Kaminski three with under a minute to play. Ohio later tied it on a Jaaron Simmons’ free throw. But, Jaylin Walker came through with the game winning basket with four seconds left as he drove the lane. The Kent State defense stood tall in the ensuing Ohio possession as the Bobcats failed to get a shot off.

Kent State’s offense was driven by Jimmy Hall. He dominated the post, scoring 22 points and pulling down 10 rebounds. When Ohio started to pay more attention to Hall with double teams, he was able to dish the ball out to open shooters that knocked down key shots. Chief among those shooters was Kevin Zabo, who knocked down four three pointers and tallied 15 points for the Golden Flashes.

Ohio won on a wild finish itself in the quarterfinals but had no such luck Friday night. Kaminski hit a game winner to get Ohio into the semifinals and past Toledo. Kaminski carried that momentum into Friday night’s semifinal game with four three’s of his own and 16 points. Simmons also followed up a solid quarterfinal performance with 25 points.

The loss closes out an impressive season for Ohio (barring any postseason invitations). The Bobcats suffered a loss to star player Antonio Campbell that should have derailed their season. Instead, they finished second overall in the MAC standings.

Kent State advances to take on rival Akron in the MAC championship game. The game will take place at 7:30 PM ET on Saturday night on ESPN2.