March 14, 2009

CLEVELAND (AP) - Akron got it right the third time.

Sparked by freshman guard Anthony "Humpty" Hitchens, the Zips, who watched as other teams cut down the nets the past two years after the championship, won their first Mid-American Conference tournament title and the NCAA berth that goes with it by beating Buffalo 65-53 on Saturday night.

Akron is back in the NCAA tourney for the first time since 1986, and they'll be there for the first time as a MAC member. The Zips were in the Ohio Valley Conference 23 years ago, when then-coach Bob Huggins stalked the sideline.

Huggy Bear would love this Akron squad.

Unleashing an in-your-face defense for 40 minutes, the fifth-seeded Zips (23-12) harassed the Bulls (21-11) all over the floor of Quicken Loans Arena, the home court of Akron's most famous son, LeBron James. Buffalo's players struggled to get good looks at the basket, and even when they got them, their shots were contested by the Zips.

It was a satisfying night for Akron, which was beaten by Miami on a controversial last-second 3-pointer two years ago by Miami and lost to bitter rival Kent State in last year's championship. But despite losing his three leading scorers from last season, coach Keith Dambrot - James' coach for two years in high school - guided the Zips to another 20-win season - and now into the NCAAs.

"When we lost on the bank shot, that was hard to take," Dambrot said, referring to Miami's miraculous win. "That put a monkey on our back. I'm glad for the guys who have been here and had to endure what we've gone through. They deserve to celebrate this thing."

Hitchens wasn't expected to play because of a sprained left ankle that kept him out of the semifinals win over top-seeded Bowling Green, but he came off the bench and scored five points in a 30-second span in the first half and finished with 10 points. Brett McKnight had 16 points, his brother, Chris, had 12 and Darryl Roberts 10.

Senior Nate Linhart had six points and nine rebounds but was named tournament MVP, a fitting reward for a role player who lived with two years of heartbreak.

"I'm not even thinking about that now," Linhart said. "This is everything I've worked for. I'm on such a high right now, it's hard to describe it."

Calvin Betts scored 12 points for the Bulls and Greg Gamble had 11. But Rodney Pierce, Buffalo's leading scorer averaging 14 points per game, was held to just four on 1-of-9 shooting.

Buffalo shot just 37 percent from the field - 3-of-16 on 3-pointers - and didn't do themselves any favors by missing nine free throws.

Leading by eight at halftime, the Zips opened the second half with a 10-2 run capped by a 3-pointer from Steve McNees to go ahead 43-27. Akron's lead swelled to 47-29 on a basket by Linhart with 13:09 left, but the Zips got tentative with their lead and allowed Buffalo to cut it to nine with 3:13 left.

But Roberts hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key, a clutch basket that brought relief to Dambrot and Akron's nervous fans.

When the final seconds ticked off, McNees spiked the ball at mid-court and was quickly engulfed by his teammates who piled on top of each other in celebration. Moments later, the Akron players went into the stands to party with fans, friends and family.

Buffalo was again denied a MAC title and will have to settle for another NIT trip. The Bulls were back in the final for the first time since 2005, when they lost on a buzzer-beating tip-in to Ohio.

Hitchens, who initially injured his ankle against Toledo, didn't play in the semifinal win over Bowling Green. It was doubtful whether he would see any playing time in the final.

He didn't start, but Dambrot sent his 5-foot-9 guard in following the first TV timeout and Hitchens had an immediate impact for a team playing its fifth game in seven days. He knocked down his first shot, a 3-pointer from the right wing, and on Buffalo's next possession, Hitchens made a steal near the foul line and went the length of the floor for a layup.

Hitchens only played four minutes in the second half, but he had already done enough to send Akron on its way to a title.