Free throw shooting has been a bit of an Achilles heel for Kent State this season. Saturday, in the MAC Tournament final at Quicken Loans Arena, the Flashes' Achilles heel led to their demise.
Kent missed seven of nine free throws in the final 6:06 and overtime as Akron, the No. 6 seed in the tournament, grabbed the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament with a 66-65 victory over the top-seeded Golden Flashes.
"It was a bad night to shoot 50 percent from the foul line," Kent coach Geno Ford said. "I know (Akron) didn't shoot it too well, either, but that's a big part of what we do. We're a team that has to score on top of the rim, we're a team that has to get to the foul line and make our free throws. We didn't get it done."
On the night Kent was 12-of-23 from the line, but were just six-of-15 after halftime. Early on it didn't appear as if the Golden Flashes were going to have to worry about hitting late charity tosses as they blew out to a 14-3 lead before most of the 8,926 fans at Quicken Loans Arena were settled into their seats.
First Randal Holt hit a 3-pointer from the right wing. Then Justin Greene powered one home down low. Michael Porrini hit a triple to make it 8-2, Justin Manns hit a pair of baskets in the paint to increase the lead to 12 before Carlton Guyton layed one in to give Kent a 14-3 advantage.
The Golden Flashes were rolling and Akron was reeling...but it didn't last long. Akron point guard Steve McNees, who was playing in his fourth MAC title game, hit a pair of quick 3-pointers to pull the Zips to within five at 14-9 and, suddenly, the game was on.
After the teams battled for most of the half, with Kent trying to protect its lead and the Zips trying to take a lead, Akron finally was able to break on top with 27 seconds remaining in the half when McNees buried another triple to give the Zips a 33-31 lead.
In the second half neither team was able to build a bigger lead than four points until late in the half, when Daryl Roberts scored five points in a 7-0 Akron run that gave the Zips their biggest lead of the night, 54-48, with 4:59 remaining in regulation.
Kent would scratch back and knot the score at 59-59 with :42 left and Greene on the line for the second of two free throws. Of course, as happened most of the night for Kent, the second rattled out, but Guyton chased down the rebound in the left corner to give the Golden Flashes another shot at taking the lead. Kent moved the ball around the perimeter to Guyton, who let a 3-pointer fly with nine seconds left. It missed and Nickola Cvetinovic pulled down one of his 10 rebounds for Akron. Rodriquez Sherman flicked the ball away near mid-court, however, and chased down the ball in time to fling a prayer at the basket. It was not answered, and the teams prepared for overtime.
In the extra session the Zips were able to overcome a statistical anomaly with strong defense and McKnight's short memory.
Kent actually had 13 field goal attempts in the extra session, to just four for Akron, but it is the Zips that will be dancing because Zeke Marshall, Akron's 7-foot center, blocked four of his game-high nine shots in the extra five minutes.
"We fought, we just couldn't get anything going offensively. We had 13 field goal attempts in overtime and they had four...and we got beat. We just couldn't finish. We could not finish," an exasperated Ford said. "You can search a box score for 100 years and I don't know if you will find a team that got nine more shots than the other team in overtime and lose. We could not finish, and we didn't finish the entire night. We didn't finish on top of the rim, guards or bigs, and Marshall had a lot to do with that."
The Golden Flashes had taken a one-point lead with :39 remaining in overtime when McKnight was fouled with :12 remaining. He had earlier shot an air-ball from the free throw line towards the end of regulation, but the senior calmly stepped to the line and hit nothing but nylon twice to give the Zips the 66-65 lead that would end up being the final.
"He shot an air-ball, then stepped up and hit a pair to win the game," Ford said. "It takes a lot of toughness to do that. If you've ever played and shot air-balls, it's not easy to shoot the next one. He stepped right up and swished them both."
Kent had a final chance to win the game. With under 10 seconds left Porrini drove the length of the floor and dropped a pass back to a trailing Sherman, who grabbed it at the free throw line. Sherman stumbled over McKnights foot and got off a wild shot that Marshall smashed straight down to the floor at the 7.1 second mark. The ball squirted out to Porrini at the top of the key, and three Zips defenders converged on him. He tossed the ball over to Sherman on the right wing, behind the 3-point line, and the lone senior on the Kent roster rose up for a shot. But McNees rose up with him and blocked the attempt with 1.6 showing on the clock. The ball went straight up in the air, and the buzzer sounded before it came down as the Akron bench emptied in jubilation.
"We've been in these games so many times," McKnight said. "This is my fourth MAC championship game in a row, so I think the veterans know exactly what it takes as far as competitiveness and toughness just to win the game. That's what gives us the little edge to win games like this, close games."
After the game, Marshall was asked if he had ever blocked that many shots in a game before.
"In high school I had quite a few nine-block, 10-block games," he responded.
"They were all against 6-2 guys," Dambrot, his coach, said with a smile.
Nonplussed, Marshall set Dambrot and the rest of the interview room straight.
"There were some 6-2 guys, there were some 7-3 guys, too," the stoic Marshall said, without missing a beat. "All in all it was just a good performance, really."
Dambrot was not all smiles after the game. Akron and Kent are arch-rivals, but the coaches have a lot of respect for each other. He said he felt for Ford in the other locker room.
"I've been where Geno is and they've had a great season. It's hard to be a number one seed and not win," Dambrot said. "That's what makes this league so difficult. You can have a great team year after year and not go to the tournament. That's hard as a coach, and as a program. They had a better year than we had, that's for sure, but the ball just bounced our way."
The Zips, who improved to 23-12 with the win, will now watch the NCAA Tournament Selection Show to find out when and where they will be playing in the tournament. Kent (23-11) is not done, either. They have an invitation to the NIT Tournament.
This was a small consolation for Porrini, who collapsed flat on his back near mid-court when the final horn sounded. He was them trampled by the celebrating Zips, leading to a bit of pushing and shoving in front of the scorer's table.
"The same thing that goes through everybody's mind that plays this game. We all grow up wanting to play in the Tournament, and we were right there," he said. "We had a great year, I love these boys to death. I love my coaching staff and I love Kent. It just felt like the world came down on me at that time, but I know that Coach Ford, the coaching staff and all of us are going to stay together and we're going to be back next year. But we still got the NIT to go to, so we'll try and win that."
Porrini refused to comment about the post-game incident.