Sunday, March 16, 2003

MAC: Central Michigan blows past Kent

Chippewas earn automatic berth in big tourney

The Associated Press

CLEVELAND - Chris Kaman scored 25 points and T.J. Meerman added 16 as Central Michigan defeated Kent State 77-67 to win the Mid-American Conference championship Saturday night and earn its first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1987.

Kaman, the MAC player of the year, added 13 rebounds for Central Michigan (24-6), which blew the game open with a 16-2 run to open the second half.

The Chippewas, who finished 9-19 a year ago, were picked to finish sixth before the season started. But after winning the MAC West title, they added their first tournament crown since Dan Majerle led them in 1987.

Majerle, one of the NBA's best outside shooters, would love this group.

The Chippewas made eight 3-pointers, including three during their decisive second-half spurt. And while protecting their double-digit lead they went to Kaman, the tourney's MVP, whenever they needed a basket.

Kaman added five assists and four blocks, showing why many think he'll be an NBA lottery pick.

Antonio Gates scored 20 points and Anthony Wilkins had 19 for Kent State (21-9), the two-time defending tournament champion. The Golden Flashes had won their last eight games in the MAC tournament.

Central Michigan came to Gund Arena 0-3 in the tournament but evened its record and left with the trophy, and more importantly, the MAC's automatic berth in the NCAA tournament's 65-team field.

Chippewas coach Jay Smith also snapped an 0-7 slide against Kent State.

J.R. Wallace added 15 points and Mike Manciel 14 for Central Michigan.

Kaman picked up his third personal foul just 18 seconds after halftime, providing a moment of hope for Kent State, which had no answer underneath for the 7-foot junior center. But with their big man in foul trouble, Central Michigan's guards stepped up.

Meerman drained a pair of 3-pointers and Wallace hit another long-range jumper to give the Chippewas a 48-33 lead with 16:28 to play.

Wallace's steal led to a layup for Meerman, and Tony Bowne's basket capped Central's 16-2 run that made it 53-33 with 15:33 left.

Kent State crept within eight points in the final two minutes, but Central Michigan closed it out by making 11 of 12 free throws in the final 1:12.

Kent State opened the game just 2-for-13 from the field, rushing some outside shots and having a few inside shots altered by Kaman.

Meerman's 3-pointer gave Central Michigan a 23-14 lead.

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