CLEVELAND – Enrique Freeman scored 23 points and Akron’s defense shut down Mid-American Conference player of the year Sincere Carry while defeating rival Kent State 75-55 on Saturday night in the MAC championship to earn its first NCAA bid since 2013.
The fourth-seeded Zips (24-9), who upset top-seeded Toledo in the semifinals, also ended Kent State’s 14-game winning streak on a day that began with four Golden Flashes players being disciplined for a profane video.
Freeman added eight rebounds and was named the tournament’s MVP. Xavier Castaneda and Ali Ali scored 15 points apiece for Akron, which has never won an NCAA Tournament game in four previous visits.
Justyn Hamilton scored 19 to lead Kent State (23-10), which played short-handed due to discipline dished out by the MAC in the wake of a video recorded by Golden Flashes players in their locker room after Friday’s win over Ohio.
Carry had his worst game this season, scoring just six points – 12 below his average – and committing nine turnovers.
Hours before tip-off, the league ruled starting Kent State starting guard Malique Jacobs wouldn’t play in the first half after he and three teammates were seen on the video that began on Snapchat and later appeared on Twitter.
The league suspended forward DJ Johnson indefinitely, while Jacobs, who had 19 points and 10 rebounds in the semis, and reserves Cli’Ron Hornbeak and Julius Rollins were forced to sit out the first half of the title game.
Jacobs finished with seven points in his 20 minutes.
The Kent State and Akron campuses are separated by just 10 miles, and the animosity between the school’s respective fan bases has no limits. They each booed the other’s dance team during timeouts while alternating chants of “Let’s Go Kent,” with “Let’s Go Zips.”
Trailing by nine at halftime, Kent State got Jacobs back to begin the second half and immediately went on an 8-0 run. But the Zips recovered with three 3-pointers, two by Garvin Clarke, to get back up by 10.
Akron later went on an 11-0 spurt, triggered by Ali’s 3-pointer to take a 56-39 lead with 7:53 remaining. The closing minutes were an Akron party inside Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse as the Zips extended their lead.
After the final buzzer, Akron’s players celebrated in a pileup at mid-court and didn’t join their coaches in the handshake line with Kent State.
With so much on the line, every possession took on added importance and Kent State’s offensive sloppiness in the first half – along with Akron’s active defense – allowed the Zips to open 34-25 halftime lead.
The Golden Flashes had 11 turnovers, seven by Carry, who was trying to do too much to compensate for Jacobs being on the bench. He also went just 1 of 7 from the field and left the floor noticeably frustrated by a no-call on his last-second heave.