Akron survives to MAC championship
Akron's dreams of a memorable March were in danger of ending in the worst way possible.
Zeke Marshall rescued them.
Dominating at both ends, the Zips' 7-foot-center scored 18 points with 10 rebounds and seven blocks as Akron, rocked last week by the suspension of point guard Alex Abreu, kept its NCAA tournament hopes alive by beating rival Kent State 62-59 on Friday night in the Mid-American Conference semifinals.
Playing just their second game without Abreu, who was arrested last week on drug trafficking charges, the Zips (25-6) overcame atrocious foul shooting (13 of 29) to make the MAC final for the seventh straight year.
Marshall and the Zips wouldn't be denied.
''I've never seen anything like what our guys did,'' said Akron coach Keith Dambrot. ''We were emotionally ruptured last week. I've never seen anything like what Zeke Marshall did. That was the most unbelievable performance. I've never seen anything like that in my life.''
Dambrot can be excused for some exaggeration. He never could have imagined losing Abreu, his top playmaker and inspirational leader, who was charged with marijuana possession and trafficking after police said he accepted a package containing five pounds of pot.
But with a week to heal, the Zips got better.
''It hit us hard,'' Marshall said. ''We had a goal to make a run in the NCAA tournament and to do that we had to step up.''
Randal Holt scored 19 points for Kent State (20-13), which lost to Akron for the third straight year in the tournament.
Golden Flashes forward Chris Evans, who scored 25 in a quarterfinal win over Buffalo, had just six points on 1-of-11 shooting before fouling out.
''It was a frustrating night for me,'' Evans said. ''I was attacking like I usually do, but Zeke came over and blocked some shots. That was the difference.''
Demetrius Treadwell added 14 points for the Zips, who will meet Ohio on Saturday for the conference's automatic NCAA bid.
Abreu's shocking arrest last week near campus had threatened to derail a special season for the Zips. Akron had a 19-game winning streak and gained national attention before Abreu was arrested the day before a loss at home to the Golden Flashes in the regular-season finale.
With a week to work freshman Carmelo Betancourt into the starting lineup, Dambrot wasn't sure what to expect from his team.
The Zips, though, dug down and persevered.
''We've been through a lot of battles before,'' Dambrot said. ''You saw our guys just rev it up.''
Marshall was a force in the second half - he had 14 points and six blocks after halftime - and his layup with 1:59 left pulled Akron within 57-56. Treadwell scored inside to give Akron the lead, and on Kent State's next possession, the junior forward stole a handoff to give the Zips possession.
Nick Harney, who played point for much of the second half, split a pair of free throws and then missed two more with 36 seconds left to keep Kent State close.
Holt missed a pair of jumpers, and Akron senior Brian Walsh stepped to the line and calmly made two free throws - his only points - to give the Zips a 61-57 lead with 6.7 seconds left.
Holt made an uncontested layup in the final second, and Marshall made a free throw with .02 on the clock, closing out a win the Zips had to have to keep their NCAA dreams from dying.
The MAC hasn't had two teams make the NCAA field since 1999, and a loss would surely have ended any chance Akron had of impressing the tournament committee.
Playing cautiously after picking up two fouls, Evans didn't score for the first 19:54 of the first half. He announced his arrival with a stunning dunk.
The 6-foot-8 senior powered down the lane and slammed over Marshall, and then Evans and his teammates celebrated the stunning play with loud screams that could be heard over the roaring Kent State crowd. The dunk helped the Golden Flashes take a 32-29 halftime lead.
But Evans never got it going in the second half and dejectedly went to the bench after fouling out in the final minute.
Following the game, Dambrot acknowledged the events of the past week have drained him.
''It's been very tough,'' he said. ''I wasn't right for five or six days. I'm still not right. But I can't let that get in the way of winning basketball games. I owe that to our team.''