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.
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.”
Randal Holt scored 19 points for Kent State (20-13), which lost to Akron for the third straight year in the tournament.
Golden Flashes forward Chris Evans, who scored 25 in a quarterfinal win over Buffalo, had just six points on 1-of-11 shooting before fouling out.
“It was a frustrating night for me,” Evans said. “I was attacking like I usually do, but Zeke came over and blocked some shots. That was the difference.”
Demetrius Treadwell added 14 points for the Zips, who will meet Ohio today for the conference’s automatic NCAA bid.
Abreu’s shocking arrest last week near campus had threatened to derail a special season for the Zips. Akron had a 19-game winning streak and gained national attention before Abreu was arrested the day before a loss at home to the Golden Flashes in the regular-season finale.
Ohio 74, Western Michigan 63
D.J. Cooper scored 21 points with 10 assists to lead defending champion Ohio.
Last year, Ohio beat Akron for the MAC title, and the second-seeded Bobcats (24-8) made a sweet run through the NCAAs before losing to North Carolina in the national quarterfinals.
Walter Offutt added 14 points and 11 rebounds for the Bobcats, who went 14-2 in conference play with both losses to Akron.
Nate Hutcheson and Darius Paul, the MAC’s top freshman this season, scored 16 apiece for the Broncos (20-12).