Akron and Western Michigan battled to the end for a berth in Saturday's MAC tournament championship game.
CLEVELAND, OH - David Kool put on a performance for the ages, scoring 39 points, but he came up just short when his jumper bounced off the rim with two seconds remaining as Akron advanced to the finals for the fourth consecutive year with a 66-64 victory.
Chris McKnight rebounded a missed layup by Steve McNees and banked it in with 6.6 seconds on the clock. Kool took the inbound up the court and had an open 18-footer, but it drew rim and deflected off the backboard. Donald Lawson unsuccessfully attempted to tip it in as time expired.
I really didn't know how much time was left or what the clock was. I knew it was 6 seconds or something... I saw guys backing off and I good a good look and just let it fly, Kool said.
It was one of the few misses on the night for Kool, who was 12-21 from the floor, including 5-11 from behind the three-point arc and 10-10 at the free throw line.
We did a little bit better on the best player tonight, Akron head coach Keith Dambrot joked, referring to Carlos Medlock's 42-point performance in the quarterfinals. We were very fortunate.
What ended up as a tense, thrilling game looked like a route early on. The Zips (24-9) were forcing the Broncos (18-15) into turnovers left and right and converting them into points. At the 9:44 mark of the first half, they led, 24-10. However, a Kool three-pointer capped a 10-0 WMU run that spanned 3:41 to cut the deficit to 30-26.
The teams went back and forth until Jimmy Conyers made an impressive athletic play. Jumping under the hoop, he was able to reach in the opposite direction than his momentum was taking him and tip in an Anthony Hitchens air ball just before the buzzer to give Akron a 40-31 lead at the break.
The Zips turned 11 Bronco turnovers into 14 points in the first half. They dominated the inside, shooting 57.8% (11-19) from inside the arc, outscored WMU 18-10 in the paint, and pulled down 7 offensive rebounds to WMU's 10 defensive boards, leading to 6 second chance points. The Broncos struggled mightily in their halfcourt offense for much of the half, getting most of their points in transition opportunities before Akron could set their defense.
I thought we played a really good first half, Dambrot said.
A Hitchens three out of the gate pushed the lead to 12, and Akron's lead hovered around the 10-point mark for the next several minutes. After Hitchens' layup made the score 49-38, WMU went on a 11-2 run with Kool scoring 8 of those 11.
Steve McNees and Kool traded threes, then Demetrius Ward stole the ball from Brett McKnight. Ward found Kool, who made space in transition, and his jumper tied the game at 54. In the remaining 8:28, the lead would change four times and tied another three times, neither team leading by more than three points.
Both teams did everything they could, WMU head coach Steve Hawkins said. It was just a really difficult pill to swallow.
The Broncos started to use the Zips' own strategy against them, converting seven Akron turnovers into 13 points in the second half. However, they could not keep the Zips off the glass. Akron secured another eight offensive rebounds to WMU's 11 boards. The Zips used those rebounds to score 10 second chance points.
The McKnight brothers finished the game on a 7-2 mini-run. Chris threw down a breakaway dunk to draw Akron to within one. After Martelle McLemore scored a layup, Chris McKnight hit a corner three to tie it at 64 after a set play coming out of a timeout. Kool dribbled into a triple team during the ensuing possession and Conyers poked at the ball. McNees came away with it, setting up the game winner a minute later.
We really have an unbelievable belief system. We knew we were gonna win, Conyers said.
The Zips tried several different methods to stop Kool, the MAC Player of the Year, but the senior guard found different ways to create an opening for himself. He would get to the free throw line, or would simply hit a contested shot.
There is not a shot on the floor that he cannot make, said Conyers, the MAC Defensive Player of the Year, who guarded Kool most of the game. When Kool launched his final shot, Conyers said he was thinking of the 2007 final when Miami's Doug Penno banked in a winning three at the end. I don't know why I was thinking of that, but I was, he said.
The only Akron defender who seemed to trouble Kool was Zeke Marshall, the 7-footer whose length forced Kool to alter his shot. He missed both jumpers while guarded by the freshman center. Zeke switched to guard him a couple times off double teams, Dambrot said. He has the feet. I thought he did a good job- he's just so long.
It was the second tight, emotionally-draining and physically taxing game the Zips played in as many days.
It's gonna tire us, Hitchens said. But it also gives us confidence - shows we got heart.
Dambrot expressed confidence for the upcoming finals and lauded his team's effort. We have a winning tradition. We've been in a lot of close games and we've won a lot of them... You can look at our team and say, 'That's a team,' he said. After Kent destroyed us in our own gym, we could've given up. They didn't do that. I knew they wouldn't do that.
The Zips will play Ohio in the championship. Tip is set for 6 p.m. in Cleveland.
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