CLEVELAND — 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 where they will take on second-seeded Ohio at Quicken Loans Arena.
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.”
Ohio 74, Western Michigan 63
D.J. Cooper scored 21 points with 10 assists to lead defending champion Ohio (24-8) back to the finals for a rematch with Akron today.
Last year, Ohio beat Akron for the MAC title, and the second-seeded Bobcats made a sweet run through the NCAA Tournament before losing to North Carolina in the regional semifinals.
Walter Offutt added 14 points and 11 rebounds for the Bobcats, who went 14-2 in conference play — both losses were to Akron.
Nate Hutcheson and Darius Paul, the MAC’s top freshman this season, scored 16 apiece for the Broncos (20-12).
The MAC’s player of the year, the silky smooth Cooper came through with a big play whenever the Bobcats needed one.
He made four 3-pointers, dropped all five free-throw attempts, and the senior from Chicago settled down Ohio’s offense just when it appeared the Bobcats were about to unravel.
Ohio returned all five starters from last season’s team that won the MAC title — 64-63 over Akron — and beat Michigan and South Florida in the NCAA tourney before bowing to the Tar Heels.