- Associated Press - Friday, March 10, 2017

CLEVELAND (AP) - With a spot in the MAC title game up for grabs, Akron coach Keith Dambrot didn’t draw up any fancy plays.

He gave his players simple, direct instructions.

“Just get the big guy the ball,” he said.

The Zips did just that as center Isaiah Johnson bulled his way inside for two baskets in the final two minutes, sending Akron past Ball State 74-70 in the semifinals on Friday night and into the Mid-American Conference Tournament championship.

Johnson and Antino Jackson scored 19 points apiece as the top-seeded Zips (26-7) advanced to the championship for the ninth time in 11 years. Akron lost to Buffalo in last year’s final.

The MAC’s player of the year, the 290-pound Johnson delivered the game’s two biggest buckets as Akron held off the fourth-seeded Cardinals (21-12), who made 13 3-pointers but missed some big ones in the final minute.

Dambrot lamented his team ignoring Johnson for long stretches, and then urged them to feed the player nicknamed “Big Dog.”

“I don’t care if it’s at the top of the key, the low block, the elbow, just get him the ball and play off of him, and quit messing around trying to do things yourself,” Dambrot said. “That’s what I mean. I don’t think it’s a complicated sport. I think people make it complicated. If you’ve got a guy like that, that can score, you surround him with shooters, it seems to me the easiest thing to do is throw him the ball and play off of him instead of coming off of ball screens or trying to play one-on-one.”

Ball State wouldn’t go away in the second half and pulled within 70-67 on a 3-pointer by Tayler Persons with 37.7 seconds left. Persons played with nine stitches in his head after colliding with a teammate while scrambling for a loose ball in the quarterfinals.

But Akron, which has been the class of the league all season, showed its championship makeup by knocking down four free throws in the final 31 seconds and playing tough defense to hang on.

Akron, which has won the title three times, will play the winner of Friday’s second semifinal between Ohio and Kent State on Saturday night for the MAC’s automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.

Tahjai Teague scored 19 and Francis Kiapway 12 to lead the Cardinals.

Johnson scored 12 points in the first half, but the Zips forgot about the big fella early in the second half and he didn’t score his first field goal after halftime until there was 7:14 remaining. But Johnson came through when it mattered most.

“I got a little tired there at the end and just being able to muster up the strength to be able to go ahead and finish both of those shots really just boosted not only myself but the team,” he said.

Dambrot, who coached LeBron James in high school, said his team has something in common with the world’s best player.

“Everybody talks about LeBron and I love LeBron, so I’m going to bring him up,” Dambrot said. “The difference between LeBron and everybody else is he cares about winning. It’s no different. Our team cares about winning and that’s why we’ve had success.”

Johnson added six rebounds and five assists, including a nice feed to a driving Jackson in the second half when the Zips were struggling to get any good looks at the basket.

Persons finished with just six points, one day after he had to be taken to the hospital with his head injury. Persons was cleared to play by the school’s medical staff and he wore a headband to cover the stitches. The injury didn’t appear to slow the sophomore at all.

“If Persons can play with that injury, then he’s got to be one of the toughest guys in America,” Dambrot said.

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