CLEVELAND (AP) — Clutching scissors in her right hand, Akron coach Jodi Kest steadied herself as she began climbing the ladder propped open underneath the basket.
Once she got high enough, Kest snipped the last strand of the dangling net, yanked it off the rim and waved the nylon souvenir above her head.
It took 40 years, but the Zips were finally on top of the Mid-American Conference.
“It’s so sweet,” Kest said. “Sweeter than I even imagined.”
Rachel Tecca scored 30 points and dominated inside, leading Akron into the NCAA tournament for the first time with a 79-68 win over Ball State in the MAC championship Saturday.
Tecca, who scored 20 in the first half, added 12 rebounds for the third-seeded Zips (23-9), who started the season 4-4 but have won 16 of 17 and will enter the NCAAs as one of the nation’s hottest teams. With their first MAC title, Akron also tied a school record for wins in the program’s 40th year.
It’s been a long ascent for Akron, which endured seven consecutive losing seasons — including a 1-27 mark in 2001-02 — before Kest arrived and turned the Zips around.
“People thought I was crazy to take this job,” Kest said. “But my kids are just like me. They love the challenge.”
The Zips led by 25 in the second half and withstood a late rally by the fifth-seeded Cardinals (18-16), who were playing their fifth game in six days.
Brittany Carter made five 3-pointers in the last eight minutes and led Ball State 23 points. Brandy Woody added 15 and Nathalie Fontaine 14 for the Cardinals.
Ball State had knocked off top-seeded Bowling Green in the semis and won four games in the tournament, but the Cardinals didn’t have nearly enough to take down Akron.
Their biggest problem was Tecca.
A three-time All-MAC selection, Tecca capped her stellar career with the tournament’s MVP award and by carrying the Zips to a long-awaited title.
The 6-foot-1 senior from Tallmadge drove past Ball State defenders whenever she wanted, and if she couldn’t find an opening, Tecca simply stepped outside and knocked down shots. She finished 13 of 19 from the floor.
“Our team set program history today,” Tecca said. “This is something no one here has ever done. This is a moment we’ll never forget. I’ll always cherish being part of this.”
The Zips were fueled by the bitterness they felt had after losing to Central Michigan in last year’s final. They didn’t want to come up short again. Other than a brief stretch of the second half when Ball State couldn’t miss, Akron was in complete control.
“I was so nervous today,” Kest said. “I wanted it so bad for them.”
When Akron’s lead reached 25, the school’s fans began celebrating when the Cardinals got hot. Carter found her stroke and made four consecutive 3-pointers, the last cutting Akron’s lead to 73-63 with 4:02 left.
With Ball State making its run, Kest said she didn’t panic, knowing she had four seniors on the floor — one of them Tecca.
“I thought, ‘We’ll be OK, and get the ball to Rachel,’” she said.
Akron went right back inside to Tecca, who got fouled and made two free throws to make it 77-63. Ball State scored again, but this time the Zips got a basket underneath from senior reserve Carly Young, who had 15 points.
As the final seconds ticked down, Tecca and her teammates shared emotional hugs at mid-court. Moments later, they were presented with the MAC title trophy — and the NCAA spot that goes along with it — two prizes long out of reach for the Zips.
Now, the Zips want more.
“They think they can go farther in the NCAA tournament,” Kest said. “People laughed when some of our kids said that. But they believe.”
Akron senior guard Hanna Luburgh scored just 6 points — 17 under her average — but chipped in with 12 rebounds.
The Zips never stopped pushing the tempo, convinced the Cardinals would crumble.
“The fatigue no question was a factor,” Ball State coach Brady Sallee said. “As talented as Akron is, if you show just a little bit of that, they’re flying down the floor for layups. They never let up. They did what they had to do. That’s what championship teams do.”