TOM WITHERS, AP Sports Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) — Jaylin Walker scored 30 points, Jimmy Hall added 19 and sixth-seeded Kent State earned its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2008 by beating rival Akron in the Mid-American Conference championship game Saturday night.
The Golden Flashes (22-13) knocked off the tournament’s top three seeds — Buffalo, Ohio and Akron — 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 finally found its groove at Quicken Loans Arena and is headed back to the NCAAs for the sixth time.
“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 hated next-door neighbors, who ended their 30-game home winning streak just 22 days ago. Akron also lost in the final last year.
Walker, who hit a game-winning layup with 4.1 seconds left to beat Ohio in the semifinals, scored 18 in the second half and was selected the tournament MVP.
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.
Ivey hit a pair of 3-pointers in the final minute, but the Zips, appearing in their ninth final in 11 years, were forced to foul and Walker knocked down four straight free throws.
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.
There’s no love lost between the schools as the rivalry has divided families, neighborhoods and small Ohio cities for years. The last title game between the schools in 2011 — an overtime victory by Akron — ended with punches being exchanged at midcourt.
Knowing the history, a TV production meeting before tip-off included instructions to the cameramen on what to do “if the teams get chippy.”
But there were no extra-curricular activities, just a few menacing glares and some solid basketball.
MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher feels the league’s schools need to do a better job scheduling outside their 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, when Kent State won the MAC title and Miami, which had All-American Wally Szczerbiak, was selected as an at-large team.
“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.”
Akron coach Keith 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.
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