The Mid-American Conference Tournament semifinal between Ball State men's basketball (21-12, 11-8 MAC) and the Akron Zips (26-7, 15-4) provided early March Madness drama, but the Cardinals could not pull away a victory, losing 74-70 Friday night.
Akron came out of the gate fast, taking a 7-0 lead in the first 1:15 of the game. The quick lead forced Ball State head coach James Whitford to call a timeout, but that did not slow down the Zips.
"It was really hard for us from the beginning on," Head Coach James Whitford said. "I am really disappointed we didn't win because I thought we were more than capable."
At the 5:20 mark in the first half, Akron extended its lead to 33-19 after junior guard Antino Jackson hit one of the Zips' seven first-half 3-pointers.
Then the Cardinals woke up.
Ball State stats:
Field goal percentage: 41.1
3-PT percentage: 44.8
Leading scorer: Tahjai Teague - 19
Akron Zips stats:
Field goal percentage: 51.9
3-PT percentage: 38.1
Leading scorers: Isaiah Johnson, Antino Jackson - 19
In the final five minutes of the first half, Ball State held Akron to only six points and scored 11, with redshirt freshman Tahjai Teague scoring five of those points to bring the Cardinals within single digits, 39-30, at halftime.
"I was just doing anything to help our team win," Teague said. "I was trying to cut the lead down."
At the 11:45 mark of the second half, Ball State closed Akron's lead to five, 47-42, after senior forward Franko House threw down a dunk.
On the Zips' next offensive possession, junior guard Sean Sellers blocked MAC Player of the Year Isaiah Johnson. This led to a 3-ball by junior guard Francis Kiapway and cut the lead to 47-45 with 10 minutes to play.
Trading baskets, Ball State found itself down 65-62 with 2 minutes and 11 seconds to go.
Johnson, though, showed why he was named MAC Player of the Year by scoring Akron's next five points, extending a 70-64 lead.
"Any player will tell you they love having the ball in those situations," Johnson said.
Jackson added, "Our team expects [Johnson] to make the right play every time, so we feed off him."
Johnson finished with 19 points and six rebounds in the game. Ball State's closest player to him on the stat line was Teague, who finished with 19 points, six rebounds, and four assists in the loss. Jackson also scored 19 points and had five steals for the Zips.
The Ball State starters finished with a combined 29 points, with 12 coming from junior guard Francis Kiapway.
With the loss, the Cardinals are eliminated from the Mid-American Conference Tournament and wait to find out if they'll be extended an invitation to a postseason tournament.
"We have spoken with some of [the postseason tournaments], it is just a matter of figuring out what the right ones are," Whitford said. "We've had a good year and feel like our guys deserve an opportunity to keep playing."