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CLEVELAND — A fierce snowstorm turned a normal four-hour bus trip for Western Michigan to the Mid-American Conference tournament into an 11-hour adventure.
The Broncos nearly made a quick exit home.
David Brown banked in a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 30 seconds left in overtime as Western Michigan, which trailed by 18 points early in the second half and by 15 with 10 minutes left, rallied to stun Akron 64-60 in the semifinals of the MAC tourney on Friday night.
The top-seeded Broncos (22-9) used an 18-0 run in the second half to overtake the Zips (21-12) and advance to the championship for the first time since 2004.
“We had incredible heart,” said senior center Shayne Whittington, who led the Broncos with 18 points and 13 rebounds. “From the end of the bench to the starters. It was quite amazing.”
Akron appeared to have an eighth straight trip to the final locked up in regulation, taking a 47-32 lead with 10:49 left on a basket by Reggie McAdams. But the Zips, who led by 17 at halftime, went cold and then froze up on offense. During a drought lasting 8:15, Akron missed five field-goal tries, three free throws and committed four turnovers.
“We played good in the first half and then kind of died on the vine,” said Akron coach Keith Dambrot. “It’s as simple as that.”
Western Michigan finally caught Akron to take a 48-47 lead on freshman Tucker Haymond’s 3-pointer with 3:15 left. Brown, a first-team All-MAC selection, then made a steal and layup to put the Broncos up by three with 2:46 remaining.
After regulation ended with the teams tied 52-all, the Broncos were up 57-55 when Brown, who was just 4 of 15 from the field, made his lucky 3 as the 35-second shot clock was expiring.
As he went back on defense, Brown reacted by lifting both hands in the air and looked skyward.
“I didn’t even call it,” Brown said, laughing about his shot. “It was a blessing.”
Connar Tava added 16 points and 12 rebounds for WMU. Brown finished with 16 points and never came off the floor, playing all 45 minutes.
Demetrius Treadwell led the Zips with 15 points. Akron made just 6 of 16 free throws and bogged down on offense after making six 3-pointers and building a 34-17 halftime lead.
At the break, Broncos coach Steve Hawkins was forced to scrap his game plan and the Broncos needed the down time to regroup after falling so far behind.
“I was shocked,” Brown said. “We weren’t playing our brand of basketball. We told ourselves to stay with it, we’ve been through this before, something good will happen sooner or later.”
Western Michigan turned up its defensive pressure in the second half and began whittling away at Akron’s lead.
As the Broncos drew closer, the Zips tightened and eventually came completely apart.
“I’m not too happy about it,” said Dambrot, who has built Akron into the league’s premier program. “I thought we had the game in hand. I don’t know if we’ve ever lost a game in here like that. I thought we would battle and win. We just couldn’t do it.”
For Hawkins, the comeback wasn’t a total surprise.
He’s been impressed with his team’s bounce-back ability all season, and now after a rough journey to Cleveland, the Broncos are one win from a title.
“We had a big, big, big hole to dig out of,” he said. “Our guys showed a lot of courage.”