23-12, 10-6 Conf
21-11, 11-5 Conf

Freshman guard Hitchens sparks Akron to its first NCAA tourney berth since 1986

CLEVELAND -- Nate Linhart snipped the last strands of net off the rim and slipped the nylon necklace over his head.

This was the elusive moment he dreamed of.

On its third try, Akron finally got it right.

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

"This was the year everyone discounted us, and we win it all," said Linhart, one of Akron's two seniors. "How about that?"

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 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, while his brother, Chris, had 12 and Darryl Roberts 10.

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. This is the best way I could have imagined going out."

The Zips were lucky to get past the first round, needing an overtime win against lowly Toledo -- Hitchens forced overtime with a 3-pointer -- to advance before knocking off Miami and top-seeded Bowling Green.

"I can't believe this," Linhart said. "There were probably two games we could have lost. I felt like we were destined."

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. Despite the loss, the Bulls, who were picked to finish last in the preseason poll, were proud of getting so far.

"I thought we had a great year," Buffalo coach Reggie Witherspoon said. "We accomplished a lot this season."

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 midcourt and was quickly engulfed by his teammates who piled on top of each other in celebration. Moments later, the Akron players climbed into the stands to party with fans, friends and family.

Afterward, it seemed all of Akron was on the floor, posing for pictures and touching a shiny trophy they longed to get their hands on.

For Dambrot, who didn't stop coaching until the final seconds, it was a win for every season.

"This is for all the guys, everyone who built this," he said before reeling off the names of a half-dozen former players. "This was a celebration of all their hard work."