CLEVELAND — I attended the Men’s Basketball Mid-American Conference (MAC) Tournament for the sixth consecutive season, and like every other year, was treated to a handful of standout performers, tight finishes, and upsets. Here are a few of my takeaways.
Best Game: It’s hard not to go with the title game but the semifinal matchup, between No. 6 Kent State and No. 2 Ohio was actually the better game. It was tight from start to finish, as Ohio led 34-32 at the break. Kent State was able to pull ahead by 4 with less than a minute to go before Kenny Kaminski drained a corner three to bring the Bobcats within one. A Jaaron Simmons free throw tied the game in the final seconds, but he was unable to connect on the second free throw which would have given Ohio the lead. Instead, Kent State’s Jaylin Walker drove the length of the floor before pulling up for the game winning floater with 4.1 seconds remaining. Simmons and the Bobcats couldn’t get up a shot on their final possession, losing 68-66 in a nail-bitter.
Most Outstanding Player: Walker. The Detroit native, was incredible for his team in the four games played this week. Yes, there were many potential suitors like Akron’s Isaiah Johnson, Kent State’s Jimmy Hall, Ohio’s Jaaron Simmons, all of whom were All-MAC First Team, but Walker was the difference in his team reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008. In his last four outings, he put up an average of 20.0 points and 8.3 rebounds, including 30 points and 6 boards in the championship game.
“This really happened?” Walker asked after the game. “Our dreams really came true?” He was the deciding factor in pushing his team over the hump and allowing them to win 4 games in 5 days to advance to the tournament.
Top Play: With 1,577 total points coming in the tournament, there were plenty of possible picks, but Kaminski’s mid-range jumper with seven seconds to lift Ohio over Toledo gets the nod. The Bobcats trailed by as much as 15 in the first half on Thursday night but gained a three-point advantage in the waining moments. That is until Nate Navigato hit a triple to tie the game. Jonathan Williams III was able to get a steal and lay-up to put the Rockets up two with 20 seconds remaining, but a Jason Carter free throw and Kaminski’s clutch jumper put Ohio ahead for good.
What’s Next: Kent State (22-13) will look to repeat the upsets of fellow MAC schools like Eastern Michigan reaching the Sweet Sixteen in 1991, Ohio downing Georgetown in 2010 and Michigan in 2012, and their own Elite Eight run of 2002, against UCLA. Akron (26-8), on the other hand, will be heading to the NIT for the second straight year to face Houston after falling in the MAC title game as the No. 1 seed, again.
“I feel sick for our guys because they had a terrific season,” Akron head coach Keith Dambrot told the Associated Press. “I’m a big boy, I can take it, but I really feel bad for all the work our guys put in because we just can’t go to the Big Dance.”