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Freeman, Ali big down the stretch as Zips top Bobcats

Ohio's season ends with 65-62 MAC semifinal loss

CLEVELAND – Ohio could not stop Mid-American Conference Player of the Year Enrique Freeman, who willed Akron to a 65-62 victory with a monster game in the semifinals of the MAC Tournament on Friday night at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.

Freeman finished with 24 points, 21 rebounds and seven blocks to send the No. 2 Zips (23-10) to the championship game against their rival Kent State. The surprise No. 8 seed Golden Flashes (17-16) won the first semifinal 73-60 over No. 5 seed Bowling Green.

Ali Ali also was big down the stretch, making amends for a technical foul that forced him to the bench for much of the second half. He had 16 points and eight rebounds. Sammy Hunter’s 3-point shooting also was key as he scored 14 points.

No. 3 seed Ohio (20-13) was led in scoring by its two seniors, Jaylin Hunter with 17 points and Miles Brown with 16 points.

The Bobcats shut down the Zips in the first half while taking a 26-16 lead, but Akron came to life after the break while building a nine-point lead and then had to hold on in the final minutes.

A Greg Tribble jumper gave Akron a 59-50 lead with three minutes left, but Ohio quickly made it a one-possession game with a Shereef Mitchell three-point play inside and then a Hunter 3-pointer. The Bobcats had a chance to get even closer after a Zips turnover but committed one of their own.

Freeman drew a foul inside and hit two free throws, and after a layup by Hunter made it 61-58 with 32 seconds left, Freeman split at the foul line. Brown scored to cut the Bobcats’ deficit to 62-60, but Ali was good on a pair of free throws to make it a four-point game again.

Aidan Hadaway missed a 3-pointer. Ohio still came away with two points when Hunter was fouled on the rebound with 5.5 seconds to go. He converted on both attempts, and then Ali made just the second of his two shots with three seconds remaining, give the Bobcats a shot. Hunter’s running 3-point attempt at the buzzer was high off the backboard.

After Brown scored the game’s first basket, the Zips scored the next eight points. Both teams struggled from the field for most of the remainder of the first half, but the Bobcats found enough offense to take a 10-point lead into the locker room by scoring the final 10 points while holding Akron without a point for the final 5:12.

After shooting just 23.1% in the first half, including just 1 of 8 3-pointers, Akron made good on 53.3% of its second-half attempts, including 7 of 14 3-pointers. Ohio never truly warmed up, shooting 36.1% for the night while making just 5 of 23 long-range attempts.

Ohio mostly maintained its halftime advantage until Akron got five straight points from Hunter to make it a 36-33 game with 11:27 left. That came right after Ali was called for his third foul and then was tagged with his fourth on a technical for wildly demonstrating his displeasure with the call.

After a Gabe Wiznitzer bucket inside for the Bobcats, Hunter struck again from deep. He hit another with 9:02 left to cut Akron’s deficit to 42-41, and then two Freeman free throws moved the Zips in front with 8:33 to go.

Foul shots by Mitchell and Brown and then a Mitchell layup put Ohio back in control 48-43, but Freeman and Ali were too much down the stretch. They scored every point during an 11-0 run, with Ali grabbing an offensive rebound and then assisting a Freeman layup to make it 54-48 at the 4:31 mark.

Clayton threw down an alley-oop dunk following a Bobcats timeout, but Freeman connected from long range before Tribble’s basket gave the Zips their biggest lead of nine points.

Both Freeman and Ali finished the night with four fouls.

Mitchell finished with 14 points, four rebounds and four assists for Ohio. Clayton was held to seven points and three rebounds. Hadaway had a team-leading seven boards but only four points. Wiznitzer had four points and six rebounds in 14 minutes.

The loss snapped the Bobcats’ seven-game winning streak, which seemed unlikely when it happened. Ohio was under .500 both overall in the MAC after a 67-58 to Akron at home on Jan. 23. But the Bobcats adjusted to a season-ending injury to AJ Brown and went 11-3 the rest of the way.

Coach Jeff Boals said afterward Ohio’s season was over and it would not play in a postseason tournament.

The Zips and Golden Flashes meet at 7:30 p.m. Saturday on ESPN2.

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