Saturday, March 09, 2002

Bowling Green, Kent in MAC final

The Associated Press

        CLEVELAND — He was the best player in the Mid-American Conference during the regular season, and nobody has been better than Keith McLeod in the postseason.

        McLeod scored 24 of his 36 points in the second half Friday night, leading Bowling Green to a 69-57 win over Ball State and into the Mid-American Conference tournament final for the first time since 1983.

        McLeod, the MAC's Player of the Year, scored 20 of the Falcons' 24 points in a 8:29 stretch of the second half that helped third-seeded Bowling Green (24-7) open a 15-point lead.

        “He made every shot he took,” said Falcons center Len Matela. “It was amazing. If we don't have Keith we're a below-.500 team. He does it all, makes his shots, plays defense and is so smart.”

        Bowling Green, which has never won the tournament, will face top-seeded Kent State (26-5) in the tournament title game Saturday night. The Golden Flashes advanced with a 86-61 win over fourth-seeded Toledo in the first semifinal.

        “It's a big deal for us,” McLeod said. “It's what we've waited for since we got here. It gives us an opportunity to do more things.”

        Kent State beat Bowling Green twice during the regular season, 70-67 on Jan. 26 at BG and 76-64 at home on Feb. 4.

        The No. 1 seed hasn't won the MAC tourney since 1996.

        Matela added 19 points and 11 rebounds for Bowling Green, whose only title game appearance came 19 years ago against Ohio. The Falcons' 24 wins are the school's most since 1948-49.

        McLeod picked up his third personal foul with 17:30 left, but BG coach Dan Dakich decided not to take his star out and McLeod went on a personal tear to put the Falcons in control.

        “I usually worry about him, but for some reason tonight I didn't,” Dakich said. “We wanted the ball in his hands.”

        First, McLeod hit an off-balance jumper in the lane and then made three consecutive 3-pointers as the Falcons opened a 46-37 lead with 10:22 remaining.

        He wasn't done, either.

        The 6-foot-2 guard then scored nine straight points on two free throws, a 3-pointer and two layups to make it 58-43 with 5:40 to go.

        “He's one of the best that has come through the conference,” said Ball State coach Tim Buckley. “He came ready to play. He's an excellent player but he didn't have to work hard enough for his shots. We didn't make him work.”

        Theron Smith had 19 points and Chris Williams 16 to lead Ball State (20-11), which will now have to sweat out selection Sunday to see if it can get an NCAA tournament bid.

        The Cardinals' case will be helped by wins over Kansas and UCLA on consecutive nights at the Maui Classic in November.

        McLeod, who made a 3-pointer with six seconds left on Thursday night to help Bowling Green escape with a 60-58 quarterfinal win over Akron, scored 12 points in the first half.

        But it was Brandon Pardon's 3-pointer with three seconds left before halftime that gave the Falcons a 30-26 lead at the break.


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