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By Tom Withers | Associated Press
CLEVELAND -- There would be no buzzer-beating shot or tears for Central Michigan's players this time. They weren't going to allow anyone to break their hearts again.
"We didn't even want it to be that close," forward Crystal Bradford said.
And the Chippewas made sure it wasn't.
Bradford scored 13 points with 10 rebounds, Jessica Schroll scored 14 and Central Michigan showed great balance and depth to beat Akron 86-68 on Saturday for its first Mid-American Conference title and NCAA berth since 1984.
The Chippewas (21-11) lost to Eastern Michigan in the title game last year on a basket with 1.5 seconds left. Central Michigan used that painful loss as motivation all season, and the Chippewas played a demanding schedule to prepare for March.
"I wanted to put 1.5 seconds on T-shirts," coach Sue Guevara said. "This was the goal. To get to this tournament and win because it was such a heartbreaking loss last year."
The Chippewas upset top-seeded Toledo in the semifinals and pulled away from the Zips (23-9) in the second half to win the championship and the league's automatic NCAA bid.
Jalisa Olive and Brandie Baker scored 14 apiece and Taylor Johnson added 13 for Central Michigan.
Niki DiGuilio made four 3-pointers in the final 12 minutes for the Chippewas, who will be making just their third appearance in the NCAA tournament and expect to play more than one game.
"You can't scout us," Bradford said. "If you try to stop one player, someone else steps up."
Hanna Luburgh scored 19 to lead the Zips. MAC Player of the Year Rachel Tecca had just 11 on 4-of-12 shooting as she struggled against Central Michigan's interior defense.
"They were the better team," said Akron coach Jodi Kest. "Anytime we play an athletic team it's not a good matchup for us. We were down by four at the half, but they made some shots and hit the boards."
Schroll added seven rebounds and six assists before injuring her right arm in the final minutes. After going to the locker room for medical treatment, she returned to the bench with her arm wrapped to take part in the postgame trophy presentations and help her teammates cut down the nets.
Schroll said she is scheduled to get X-rays.
With the game in hand in the final minutes, Bradford, who was named the tournament's MVP, danced in a circle on the sideline. When the final horn sounded, the Chippewas stormed the floor as Kool and the Gang's "Celebration" played over the loudspeakers inside Quicken Loans Arena.
The Chippewas spent the offseason reliving those final seconds in last year's championship and were determined not to let it happen to them again. Guevara loaded up the schedule with games against Saint Joseph's, Green Bay, Notre Dame, Purdue, Florida and Texas. It prepared her team for the MAC, and except for a couple of stumbles, the Chippewas were among the league's elite.
At one point, Guevara questioned her own judgment about making her team play so many tough games.
"I remember thinking, 'What are you doing? Are you a crazy woman?'" she said. "But it helped us."
Leading by four at halftime, Central Michigan began to wear down the Zips in the second half with their inside-outside attack.
Baker and Johnson scored layups as the Chippewas opened a 54-44 lead. Olive then made a steal and drilled a dagger 3-pointer to push Central's lead to 13.
"She didn't respect my three, so I shot it," Olive said.
The Zips did their best to hang around, but DiGuilio's 3-pointers kept them at a distance and Guevara was able to empty her bench in the final minutes.
Akron was making its first appearance in the final, and will have to wait for its next shot at making the NCAA field.
Central Michigan knows what that's like.
The Chippewas waited a season to wash away those 1.5 seconds.
Asked for her thoughts as she watched the final numbers dissolve from the clock, Bradford couldn't find the right words.
"Unexplainable," she said. "This just shows you that everything happens for a reason."