Toledo Rockets men’s basketball coach Gene Cross thought his team had Akron beat in the first round of the Mid-American Conference tournament.
But Akron’s Anthony “Humpty” Hitchens took a pass in the corner and hit a 3-pointer to tie it with 1.3 seconds left and force overtime. Akron won 93-92 on Brett McKnight’s bucket from close range with 0.5 seconds remaining in the extra session.
“It wasn’t a fun way to go out,” Cross said, “but it was a great college basketball game.”
Toledo had a 12-point lead with 6 minutes left and a seven-point edge with 2:22 remaining, but couldn’t hold off the Zips.
“We had nine lives in that game,” Akron coach Keith Dambrot said. “We weren’t very good and they played really well. (Hitchens) hit the 3 – he’d missed 21 straight 3s. Crazy as that sounds, he’s a good shooter. That’s good coaching, isn’t it?”
It’s been a crazy season on a lot of levels for Akron, which followed up the overtime thriller with three more wins to capture the MAC championship. The Zips (23-12) will face fourth-seeded Gonzaga on Thursday in the first round of the NCAA men’s tournament in Portland.
Akron dropped three of its first four MAC games and was sitting at 9-8 in mid-January. The Zips also lost starting point guard Ronnie Steward to a season-ending injury after just six games. With a roster heavy on freshmen and sophomores, the NCAAs were the last thing on Dambrot’s mind.
“I didn’t think we’d have a great season, to be honest with you,” he said. “I thought we could compete with anybody, but we’d lost a lot of close games.”
Akron reeled off seven straight wins, but more growing pains were ahead.
“At this level most of the time you win with juniors and seniors and seven of our guys are freshmen,” Dambrot said. “We only have one senior. They’ve kind of surprised me.
“It’s been an up-and-down year. Just when we thought we had them straightened out, we’d fall off. Just when I thought we were down and out, we’d play well. A lot of it comes down to having won so many games over the last four years.”
Dambrot, who coached LeBron James in high school, is in his fifth season at Akron. His first team won 19 games, the last four have won at least 23. The Zips played in the MAC title game the last three years, finally breaking through with a 65-53 victory over Buffalo.
The Zips rely on a turnover-inducing man-to-man defense and offensive balance. Akron has forced 625 turnovers while committing only 482. The Zips hold opponents to 59.8 points per game.
McKnight, a 6-foot-6, 245-pound sophomore, doesn’t start, but he averages a team-high 11.4 points. He was honored as the MAC’s sixth man of the year. Older brother Chris McKnight, 6-7 and 225, chips in 9.2 points. Nate Linhart, a skinny 6-8 senior, does a little of everything. He averages 10.1 points and 6.2 rebounds. He was the MAC defensive player of the year.
Five Zips averaged between 10.3 and 12.5 points in four MAC tournament games. Dambrot said he’s never had a Zips player average more than 14.9 in a season.
“They are a huge matchup problem for most teams because of their size,” Cross said. “From the ‘2’ guard all the way through center, they have guys that are multi-position and multi-dimensional. Linhart, the McKnights, (Jimmy) Conyers, (Nikola) Cvetinovic, they’re all kind of interchangeable.
“They have guys that can knock down shots at pretty much every position. McKnight is a nightmare because he’s their best perimeter player, but he can also go inside. Hitchens is as tough as you can be. (Darryl) Roberts, (Steve) McNees and (Brett) McClanahan are shot-makers.”
Linhart has modest stats, but “he creates so much havoc on both ends of the court,” Cross said. Dambrot said Linhart is like many of his players, perhaps a bit undersized to be in the Big Ten, but highly effective in the MAC, which some refer to as a mini version of the Big Ten.
“When you see him, you’ll think, ‘This guy can’t play,’ ” Dambrot said. “He’s awkward, strange shooting stroke, doesn’t do anything great. He just wins.”
Steward’s injury prompted Dambrot to pull McClanahan’s redshirt. The 6-4 freshman averages 4.5 points and 13.4 minutes. Hitchens missed time in the MAC tournament with an ankle injury. He is expected to play Thursday, but probably won’t be 100 percent, the coach said.
The Zips are fond of the 3-pointer (753 attempts, 176 more than opponents), but Dambrot said the team’s turnaround was fueled by emphasizing post touches to generate an inside-outside attack.
Toledo committed 43 turnovers in two games against the Zips. In last week’s game, the teams combined for 62 fouls and 88 free throws.
“They play a switching man-to-man,” Cross said. “If someone is coming off a screen and they curl or fade, there is no curl or fade because they switch.”
Cross highlighted several key matchups, including Gonzaga’s bigs defending the McKnights and Linhart, as well as the guard battle between Jeremy Pargo and Hitchens.
“Keith has been to the brink of getting to the tournament for so many years and had so much success,” Cross said. “It was almost like it was their time, the way they beat us and the way they’ve lost (in title games) in the past.”
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