Saturday, March 11, 2017
Kent State: 2016-17 Mid-American Men's Basketball Champions
CLEVELAND -- There was nothing easy, nothing routine about Kent State's trip to the NCAA Tournament.
The Golden Flashes took the toughest road possible.
Jaylin Walker scored 30 points, Jimmy Hall added 19 and sixth-seeded Kent State earned its first NCAA berth since 2008 by beating rival Akron in the Mid-American Conference championship game Saturday night to cap a six-day stretch as mad as March can get.
Since Monday, the Golden Flashes took down the nation's leading scorer in overtime, knocked off the two-time defending tournament champions and then beat the top two seeds in 24 hours to win the title.
And if that wasn't enough, they have bragging rights over their hated next-door neighbors who now have to watch them play in the NCAAs.
"This really happened?" said Walker, the tournament MVP. "Our dreams really came true?"
Believe it, Kent State
Coming together when it mattered most, the Golden Flashes (22-13) completed their remarkable journey by beating the top three seeds -- Buffalo, Ohio and Akron -- in succession to win their sixth conference title. They barely advanced to Cleveland, needing overtime to edge 11th-seeded Central Michigan in the opening round.
But Kent State found its groove inside Quicken Loans Arena and will enter the NCAA field as a team to keep an eye on. The Golden Flashes are athletic, play solid defense and in Hall have one of the most underrated players around.
"We knew if we played Kent State basketball that we would be able to do this," an emotional Hall said. "It feels amazing."
Isaiah Johnson scored 24 and Jimond Ivey 18 as the top-seeded Zips (26-8) had their postseason dreams dashed by their bitter rivals, who ended their 30-game home winning streak just 22 days ago and handed them their second straight loss in the final.
"I feel sick for our guys because they had a terrific season and that's just the reality of this league," Akron coach Keith Dambrot said. "If you have an average night when it really matters, the regular season kind of goes out the window. I'm a big boy, I can take it, but I really feel bad for all the work our guys put in because we just can't go to the Big Dance.
"They made all the plays in the last eight minutes. We didn't, and just feel bad for our kids."
The third game in three weeks between the schools separated by 11 miles lived up to its reputation as the MAC's best and fiercest rivalry. Underscoring the competitiveness, Kent State leads the all-time series 75-73.
Trailing much of the game, Akron, which will likely have to watch the NCAA Tournament at home, pulled even at 49-all with nine minutes to go on a 3-pointer by Josh Williams.
But Kent State wasn't going to be denied as Walker, the fearless sophomore guard from Detroit, scored six points during a 10-0 run that put the Golden Flashes in control.
Following the game, Kent State coach Rob Senderoff was rattling off Hall's accomplishments, unaware that Walker was selected MVP.
When the final horn sounded, Hall, who was in foul trouble in the first half, flung the ball toward Kent State's basket before climbing over a row of chairs and press tables to hug his mom in the stands.
It was a passionate outpouring by Hall and all the Golden Flashes, who had their ups and downs during a season that isn't over.
"Everything just came out," Hall said of seeing his mom. "I wanted to thank her for having me, raising me and believing in me."
Kent State has a few more believers.
MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher thinks the league's schools need to do a better job scheduling outside the conference to build resumes and make them more attractive for multiple NCAA bids.
The conference hasn't had two teams make the NCAA field since 1999.
"It's who you play and who you beat," he said. "We've got to move that needle up. You've got to go out and figure out a way to get it done."
Dambrot is from a rich basketball background.
His uncle, Irwin, played for the 1950 City College of New York team that won both the NCAA Tournament and NIT in the same season -- the only school to pull off that double-double. Irwin Dambrot was also chosen MVP of that NCAA tourney and selected in the first round by the New York Knicks in the NBA draft.
Kent State: It was a nice turnaround for the Golden Flashes, who started 1-4 in conference play and missed getting a first-round bye because of a home loss to Akron on March 3.
Akron: The Zips have won at least 21 games in 12 straight seasons under Dambrot, something only accomplished during that span by Gonzaga, Kansas and Duke.
Kent State: The Golden Flashes will watch Sunday's NCAA selection show to see where they're headed.
Akron: An NIT bid is likely for the regular-season conference champions.