Saturday, March 15, 2003

MAC: Central Michigan, Kent advance to final



By Tom Withers
The Associated Press

CLEVELAND - Chris Kaman hasn't changed his mind about Gund Arena just yet. "I hate this building, still," Central Michigan's star center said. One more win at the Gund could make Kaman feel differently.

Kaman scored 23 points and Central Michigan made 12 3-pointers Friday night to advance to the Mid-American Conference tournament final with a 94-72 win over Northern Illinois.

The top-seeded Chippewas (23-6), who entered the tourney 0-3 at the Gund, are now one win away from an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.

To earn its first NCAA trip since 1987, Central Michigan will have to defeat two-time defending MAC champion Kent State (21-8), which moved into the final with a 73-70 win over Ohio University.

Anthony Wilkins scored a career-high 22 points and Antonio Gates added 21 for the No. 2 seed Golden Flashes, who have won eight straight MAC tournament games since losing to Ohio in the 2000 quarterfinals.

"They're battle-tested," said Ohio's Brandon Hunter, who led the Bobcats with 26 points. "They know how to win."

Saturday's final will match the top seeds for the first time since 1999. Kent State beat Central Michigan 82-78 in the regular season.

In Friday's first semifinal, Kaman did most of his damage inside, and his teammates helped by making their outside shots.

"You kind of pick your poison with them," said Northern Illinois' Marcus Smallwood. "You know he (Kaman) is going to get his points. It's hard to work around that."

Kaman, the MAC's player of the year, scored 15 points in the second half as the Chippewas matched the school record for wins in a season and moved into the title game for the first time since 1990.

With 3:30 left, Kaman, who added 14 rebounds, even did a little housekeeping. After noticing the floor was wet under the basket, Kaman grabbed a mop from a surprised ballgirl and went to work.

"I hope the ballgirl wasn't mad," he said. "I wasn't trying to show her how to do her job."

J.R. Wallace added 22 points - 15 on 3-pointers - and Mike Manciel added 18 for Central Michigan, which shot 60 percent from the floor and won for the 11th time in 12 games. The Chippewas last won 23 games in 1966-67.

"We're all excited about being in the championship," Wallace said. "We're ready to go."

Jay Bates had 29 points and P.J. Smith 15 for No. 4 seed Northern Illinois (17-14), whose season ended with its first trip to the MAC semifinals since 1982.

Hunter, Ohio's senior center, played the second semifinal with a heavy heart.

His grandfather, Arthur Clark, died Thursday night in Cincinnati. Hunter had "RIP Pops" and "I Will Miss U" written on his sneakers, and the Bobcats wore black memorial bands on their jerseys to honor Clark, paralyzed since a car accident last July.

"My grandfather raised me to be tough," Hunter said. "He taught me to be tough as nails. So I came out and played like I'm supposed to play."

So did Kent.

The Golden Flashes' poise and tournament experience carried them down the stretch. Kent State didn't make its first free throw until 16.3 seconds remained.

"We prepare, we work and we expect to be here," Wilkins said. "We're here to take care of business."

After Gates hit a jumper in the lane, giving Kent a 69-64 lead, Hunter completed a three-point play to get the Bobcats within two with 2:11 remaining.

Both teams missed open shots before Gates, playing with five stitches in his right eye after being poked in a quarterfinal win over Marshall, was fouled with 16.3 seconds left.

The 6-foot-5 senior, the lone starter remaining from Kent State's 2002 NCAA team that made it all the way to the final eight, then made two free throws to make it 71-67.

Jaivon Harris missed a 3-pointer with nine seconds left, and Wilkins sank two free throws with 5.2 seconds left, giving Kent State a 73-67 lead.

Hunter then hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Steve Esterkamp added 18 points for Ohio, the lowest seed ever to advance to the semifinals.

Kent freshman guard DeAndre Haynes bruised his left big toe in the closing seconds. X-rays were negative and a school spokesman said Haynes will be a game time decision.




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