Akron and Kent State met on the basketball court for the 148th time in the history of their two programs on Saturday night in Cleveland. But this meeting was not your run-of-the-mill rivalry game. This game was for the MAC Tournament championship and a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Kent State pulled off the upset of the regular season champion Zips by a final score of 70-65. The Golden Flashes now lead the all-time series between the schools, 75-73.
Both Akron and Kent State ran their offenses through their star big men — Akron through Isaiah Johnson and Kent State with Jimmy Hall. The battle between the two started early in the game and carried on for much of the night. Hall either scored or assisted on five of Kent State’s first six baskets as the Golden Flashes jumped out to an early lead.
However, Kent State’s frontcourt ran into foul trouble in the first half. Both Hall and Deon Edwin picked up two fouls in the half while Adonis De La Rosa racked up three in just eight minutes on the court. That gave Johnson an advantage for Akron down low as he scored 10 points in the first half to keep the Zips close.
The game remained close for much of the second half until a 10-0 run put Kent State in front by eight with 4:24 to play. Jaylin Walker was responsible for six points during the run, which would turn out to be the decisive stretch. Walker finished with a game-high 30 points.
Kent State’s frontcourt was able to limit the fouls in the second half. None of the three who was in trouble in the first half — Hall, Edwin, and De La Rosa — fouled out. Having the three of them available for the remainder of the game helped defensively as the Golden Flashes could afford to be more aggressive with Johnson. Staying out of further foul trouble also kept Hall on the attack offensively. He finished the game with 19 points and 10 rebounds. But perhaps most importantly, Hall was able to pass well out of traps when Akron brought extra defenders to guard him.
Despite all of the attention he was getting from Kent State’s defense, Johnson still finished with 24 points. However, he finished the night with four turnovers, no doubt the result of extra defensive pressure being thrown his way.
Kent State advances to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008. The Golden Flashes were the 6 seed in the MAC Tournament and have 13 losses this season. They will await their seeding fate on Selection Sunday, but it is hard to imagine they would be anywhere above a 13 seed since Akron was projected at that seed line by Bracket Matrix. Kent State will likely be a 14 or 15 seed.
Akron now heads to the NIT as an automatic bid. The Zips’ record stands at 26-8 after Saturday’s loss to Kent State, but they have no wins over KenPom top 100 opponents. Their strength of schedule does not warrant at-large consideration for the NCAA Tournament.