CLEVELAND (AP) -- On a typical game day, Kent State coach Jim Christian gathers his players for a shootaround and to review some plays. With a championship at stake, he changed things up and held a meeting instead.
He talked to the Golden Flashes about playing with energy, about their intensity, about what it would take to beat Akron -- again.
Right away, he knew they were listening.
"I could tell by the look in their eyes that they were ready to play," he said.
Haminn Quaintance scored 16 points and Kent State crowned a dominant conference season by beating its bitter neighborhood rival Akron 74-55 in the Mid-American tournament championship Saturday night to reserve a slot in the NCAA brackets.
With their fifth tourney title and second in three years, the Golden Flashes left little doubt about their place in the MAC. They won the league's East title and had the player of the year, the top coach and its best defensive player, Quaintance, who showed he can do it at the other end, too, and was chosen tournament MVP.
Win or lose, Kent State may have already been a lock for the NCAA tournament. But the Golden Flashes gave the selection committee nothing to do but find them a place to play next week.
"We didn't want to leave it in the hands of anybody else," senior forward Mike Scott said. "We decided our own fate."
When the final horn sounded, Fisher, a junior college transfer named the MAC's player of the year in his first season at Kent, did a backflip in as Golden Flash fans flipped out. Scott quickly threw on a championship hat and raced the length of the floor in delight.
"We conquered one goal," Scott said. "Before the season I told this team we were going to make history."
Scott was asked about the team's next goal.
"Win the first game in the NCAA tournament," he said.
"Great answer," Christian said.
For Akron, the NCAA tourney remains just out of reach. The Zips were beaten by Miami of Ohio on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer in last year's final, and were hoping to erase that painful memory by making the 65-team field for the first time since 1986.
But an extended scoring drought at the end of the first half put Akron in a hole the Zips could never escape, and they lost their third straight game to a school just 15 miles down the road.
"We won 23 games, we just had trouble with Kent," coach Keith Dambrot said. "They owned us this year."
Senior Jeremiah Wood scored 13 points but missed several short shots underneath and made just five of 14 free throws for Akron, which is counting on an NIT bid but thought it would get one last year and didn't. The Zips were only 18-of-33 from the line.
Following Akron's win over Western Michigan in Friday's semis, Wood said he hoped the Zips would get another shot at Kent State in the final. "That would be the best way to win it," he said.
Those words came back to haunt the four-year starter, whose college career will be remembered for near misses and second places.
"Struggle to live, live to struggle," Wood said in summing up his days at Akron. "Just when you think you got it good, you get it taken away."
Kent State closed the first half with a 16-1 run to take a 33-20 lead. Last week at Akron, the Golden Flashes held a 17-point halftime lead before the Zips stormed back. There would be no such comeback this time as Kent State closed it out with authority.
Akron did cut it to 51-41 with 8:20 left on a basket by Nate Linhart. But Scott scored on a baseline jumper and was intentionally fouled after a steal. He made both free throws, and Kent State got to keep the ball. Singletary then converted a three-point play, but was flattened after making the free throw by Linhart, who backed into the unsuspecting Kent State guard.
Singletary went down in a heap and an angry Christian said something to Linhart as he walked onto the floor.
There has always been bad blood between the schools, which are separated by a stretch of Route 59. Earlier this season, the teams traded shoves at the end of a game at Kent. But afterward, Dambrot had nothing but praise for the Golden Flashes.
"That's a good team," he said. "I'm a Kent fan except when they play Akron."
About the time Cavaliers megastar LeBron James, the Rubber City's most famous native son arrived to cheer for Akron, the Zips took on their nickname. They went without a field goal over the final 7:46 of the first half, missing their final nine shots and three straight free throws in a drought they couldn't afford.
Christian wasn't always sure this was a championship-caliber Kent State team. But he liked its pieces, and hoped that one day it would mesh into a formidable whole. The Golden Flashes did and never lost two consecutive games all season.
"This is a resilient group," he said. "It's a tough group of people. We just find ways to win, and this time of year that's what it's all about."