CLEVELAND — ”Ooooooooooooooo!”
It was the kind of exclamation that comes from a head coach only in those delirious few moments after winning a championship. The job demands calm, consistent and compliant PR at all times, and usually an indication that everything is under control even if it isn’t.
But John Groce has always been excitable on the sidelines, and he exhaled loudly and with purpose in those joy-soaked minutes after his Akron Zips silenced rival Kent State 75-55 in the 2022 MAC Tournament championship game on Friday night. The championship delivered an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, the holy grail of every program in the Mid-American Conference and one Akron’s fifth-year head coach has been blessed to claim three times.
Yes, that John Groce. The same one who guided Ohio to a pair of MAC tournament titles and NCAA berths (and three NCAA wins) in 2010 and 2012. After the Bobcats’ run to the Sweet 16, Groce left for Illinois and returned to the NCAA Tournament in 2013.
But since then, Groce had four more mostly disappointing years and a dismissal at Illinois. He returned to the MAC at Akron, but had been denied another championship until now — the fifth year in his tenure with the Zips.
Groce’s 10 years between tournament berths coincided with Akron’s own drought. The Zips last claimed the MAC’s NCAA spot also in 2013. Both runs ended in emphatic fashion on Saturday night as No. 4 seed Akron (24-9) claimed another improbable championship.
“It just makes you appreciate it more, right?” Groce said. “This is a tough business. You have to appreciate each and every one so much. It’s so hard to just get in this game, let alone win it.”
Groce became just the second coach to lead two different MAC programs to the NCAA Tournament, joining the immortal Charlie Coles (CMU, Miami). Sunday will mark his fourth team to earn a spot in The Big Dance, with three coming from the one-shot-only MAC.
Associate head coach Dustin Ford has been at Groce’s side every step of the way. He was next to him on the bench when their teams reached the NCAAs three times in four years. Neither brings the same brashness they had a decade ago, however. It’s been tempered by experience.
“This business will humble ya, it does. It humbled us. You get fired,” Ford said. “But then you get a chance to be at Akron, get a chance at a championship. It means a lot.
“At the end of the day…it’s hard to do this. I don’t care what seed you are,” Ford continued. “You got to be really good, you got to be really lucky, and we were a combination of both the last three days.”
Akron dodged a loss in the quarterfinals when Buffalo’s Ronaldo Segu’s late shot was just off the mark. Two nights later, the Zips were celebrating a championship.
“If Segu makes that we’re not standing here,” Ford said. “Like I said, good AND lucky.”
The Zips (24-9) were clearly ‘good’ and better than Kent State (23-10) on Saturday night. And those lessons in humility that Groce and Ford have learned over the last decade, were hammered home in intense fashion for the Golden Flashes.
The day began with four KSU players being disciplined for a profanity-filled video shot from the winning locker room after Friday night’s win over Ohio. Junior forward DJ Johnson shot the video and voiced the majority of the lyrics, disparaging and vulgar, about their championship game opponent. The MAC, in concert with Kent State, responded by suspending Johnson indefinitely and make three others — including starting guard Malique Jacobs — sit out the first half of the title game.
It clearly affected the Flashes throughout. Kent State had 19 turnovers, and MAC Player of the Year Sincere Carry had his worst game of the season before finishing with six points on 2 of 11 shooting with a season-high nine turnovers. Jacobs had seven points, three rebounds, and four assists in the second half. Justyn Hamilton led KSU with 19 points.
“There was clearly a lapse in judgment by one of our players,” KSU coach Rob Senderoff said. “It’s hard not to look at it that way.”
Groce said he never addressed the video with his team.
“Absolutely not,” he said.
The Flashes entered on a 14-game winning streak, but never looked like themselves. Carry tried to do too much in the first half, and had eight turnovers and three points, as the Zips grinded out a 34-25 halftime lead.
Jacobs joined the action in the second half, and Kent State landed an 8-0 run to pull to within 34-33. Akron called a time out, and Carry and Jacobs pranced the length of the floor trying to ramp up the crowd of 8,361.
That gesture, like the video the night before, won’t look good in hindsight. The Zips dropped an 11-2 run out of the time out, then used an 11-0 run to forge a 56-39 lead with 7:53 remaining.
The Flashes never got close, and Akron held a party inside Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse over the final five minutes.
“Just a rough night for me,” Carry said. “Simple as that.”
After the final buzzer, the Zips piled up at mid-court in celebration and didn’t join their coaches in the handshake line with Kent State. The Flashes did their talking the night before, and Akron answered with a championship and the snub.
“It was real hard just to sit there in the first half and watch,” said Jacobs, a redshirt junior who had double-doubles in each of the first rounds of the tournament. “I’m the engine of the team and it was like a car without the engine.”
Freeman, a former walkon, hit 8 of 10 from the field for 23 points and was named the tournament MVP in his hometown. Xavier Castaneda and Ali Ali added 15 points apiece for Akron, which has never won an NCAA Tournament game.
Ali and Castaneda joined Freeman on the all-tournament team. Carry and Ohio guard Mark Sears rounded out the list.
The Zips weren’t the best team in the MAC most of the season, but they ended the year as the most connected. Playing free and aggressive, Akron got everyone involved, and persevered through three nights in Cleveland.
“We had three weeks where we played three games in five days. We had COVID cancellations and postponements,” Groce said. “We had one team to start the season on Nov. 9 then we lost a guy. Then with about eight games to go, we lost another guy.
“The courage these guys have had the entire time has been amazing. They just stayed with it.”
With the humility that comes with failure, Groce was soaking up every second of a championship that was never guaranteed and unforeseen by many outside the locker room just days ago. Players from Akron squad in 2020 — a No. 1 seed that never got to play in Cleveland due to the pandemic — were piped in on FaceTime. He reveled in talking about Freeman. And he wanted no part in claiming credit for the Zips’ title.
“We were really good down the stretch, stuck with it, and got lucky, which every team has to be to get here,” he said.
Ford said it was rewarding to be back at the top. Groce and his staff rewarded the faith Akron showed in bringing him and Groce back to the MAC.
“I’ve been with this dude for 15 years. This guy, this time of year, he’s as good as anybody in the country. He’s got a way of figuring out on short prep what we need to do and what we need to take away.
“Our guys believe and that’s 90 percent of it, man.”
2022 MAC Tournament
Cleveland, Ohio | Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse
Thursday, March 10 Quarterfinals
Friday, March 11 Semifinals
Saturday, March 12 Championship