Kent State defeated rival Akron, 70-65, in the Mid-American Conference men's basketball championship game Saturday night at Quicken Loans Arena before 10,376 fans.
Kent earns the MAC's automatic bid to the 2017 NCAA Tournament and will learn of its first-round opponent when the brackets are revealed Sunday, 5:30 p.m. CBS. It is KSU's first trip to the NCAA Tournament since its last MAC tourney title in 2008.
Kent got the lead early, gave it up once in the first half and once in the second, but held on despite a flurry of late Akron 3-pointers. Sophomore guard Jaylin Walker, who lifted Kent to the championship game with the winning basket against Ohio University, delivered a game-high 30 points on 11-of-18 shooting along with six rebounds.
Walker was the tournament MVP.
This on a night when KSU leading scorer Jimmy Hall was saddled with first-half foul trouble, yet still finished with 19 points 10 rebounds and two blocked shots. This was the third game of the season between these two Northeast Ohio rivals with the Golden Flashes winning the first and the last.
This extends a run from what was once a 13-12 team teetering on the brink to now 22-13, winners of nine of their last 10 in what is arguably one of the most impressive regular-season runs in KSU history.
Down the stretch, the Flashes beat what would be the top three seeds in the MAC Tournament twice each; Akron, Buffalo and Ohio University, along with knocking out the highest scoring team in the conference, Central Michigan, 116-106 in overtime
"It feels good, words can't express it,'' Hall said. "We knew from the git-go we would prove them wrong."
MAC regular-season MVP Isaiah Johnson led Akron with 24 points, but it was not enough to overcome Walker and the rest of the Golden Flashes.
KSU point guard Jalen Avery, who hit a pair of clutch free throws for a 70-65 lead with six econds to play pointed back to fellow sophomore Walker.
"Tonight, he was a killer,'' Avery said.
MAC Men's bracket
The first half: Kent State jumped to an early lead, and for the most part held it throughout the opening half to take a 27-24 lead at the break. But it came at a cost. Leading scorer Jimmy Hall and his backup, Adonis De La Rosa, had a combined five fouls well before intermission, along with top scorer Deon Edwin, also with two.
That forced all three to extended bench minutes, paricularly Hall, even as he was able to post 10 points in just 12 minutes of action.
Taking up much of the scoring slack was sophomore guard Jaylin Walker, who delivered nine points. Akron's Isaiah Johnson had eight points at the half. But Kent's defense, even with its inside players in foul trouble, kept Akron from going off, particularly on the perimeter as the Zips were just 1-for-6 on 3-pointers.
The other plus for Akron, as Kent was playing its fourth game in six days, was the Zips had eight points off the bench at halftime to just four for KSU.
The game changer: Akron took a 49-47 lead on a Josh Williams 3-pointer. But Walker answered by leading Kent on a 10-0 run hitting a runner in the lane, a rebound stick-back and a pair of free throws with 4:24 to play for a 57-49 cushion the Flashes used for a ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
Did you know: The all-time basketball series between Akron and Kent State has been virtually even (74-73, Kent, before the final), and that was the case this season as each team won on the others home court.
But in MAC Tournament play the Zips entered Saturday's title game holding a 5-2 edge in MAC Tournament meetings and a 1-1 mark against the Golden Flashes in the title game.
Kent won, 74-55, over Akron in 2008 for a MAC Tournament crown. Akron won in overtime, 66-65, in 2011. There have been three games since 2011, with the Zips winning all three. However, that four-game run by Akron over Kent have been collective nailbiters by the combined margin of 10 points.
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CLEVELAND, Ohio -- News and notes from the 2017 Mid-American Conference Basketball Tournament at Quicken Loans Arena:
The difference: Ohio University played Kent State the second game of the conference season on January 6 and won easily, 85-67, as KSU began MAC play going 1-4. Ohio played the Golden Flashes again on February 23 and lost, 70-67.
The Bobcats played the Golden Flashes in the semifinals of the MAC Tournament on Friday and lost again, 68-66. Coach Saul Phillips was asked about the biggest difference that turned a team that stood 13-12 on Valentine's Day into a team playing for the MAC championship and standing 21-13.
"Their defense got markedly better,'' Phillips said after Kent's 68-66 MAC Tournament semifinal victory. "It jumps right off the tape at you. Going small was huge for their season."
Starting with a Valentine's Day victory over Miami, Kent has gone 8-1 since. It now starts a lineup with four guards -- 6-0 Jaylen Avery, 6-2 Jaylin Walker, 6-3 Deon Edwin and 6-5 Mitch Peterson to go with 6-8 Jimmy Hall.
In the eight games since starting the run with a 79-72 win over Miami -- with the exception of a 116-106 overtime win vs. Central Michigan -- Kent has held every team below 70 points, including a 66-56 loss to Akron.
Long time coming: Northern Illinois returned to the Mid-American Conference in 1997, but Saturday will be its first appearance in a MAC Championship game since 1982. There were several years when NIU was either an independent or in another conference before returning to the MAC.
The Huskies did go to the women's NCAA Tournament in 1995.
Back in action: Ball State guard Tayler Persons, who missed the bulk of the Cardinals quarterfinal victory over Western Michigan after an early midcourt collision, returned for Friday's semifinal against Akron. He wore a wide-band head wrap to help cover up the nine stitches it took to close the wound. He then played 28 minutes against the Zips with six points, five rebounds and four assists.
Sad ending: Miami coach John Cooper, 47, was never the "right fit" for Miami and his five-year record of 59-100 was evidence of that. So it was announced Friday his initial five-year contract was not to be renewed.
Along with that decision, Miami also announced basketball will become a sport of emphasis and it would dedicate itself to returning the RedHawks to their one-time prominence in basketball.
Cooper helped that cause as he leaves behind a strong freshman class that included MAC Freshman of the Year Michael Weathers, a 6-3 guard, along with his 6-6 twin brother, Marcus.