CLEVELAND (AP) — Crystal Bradford scored 13 points with 10 rebounds and Central Michigan showed 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 the heartbreaking loss as motivation, and the Chippewas played a demanding schedule to prepare for March.
Toledo in the semifinals and pulled away from the Zips (23-9) in the second half.
Jalisa Olive scored 14 and Niki DiGuilio made four 3-pointers in the final 12 minutes for Central Michigan, which had six players score in double figures.
Hanna Luburgh scored 19 to lead the Zips. MAC Player of the Year Rachel Tecca had 11.
Central Michigan's Jessica Schroll finished 14 points, seven rebounds and six assists.
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. Coach Sue Guevara loaded up the schedule with games against 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.
Leading by four at halftime, Central Michigan began to wear down the Zips in the second half with their inside-outside attack.
Brandie Baker, who finished with 14 points, and Taylor 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.
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. Central Michigan's win was only tempered by an injury to Schroll, who hurt her wrist in a collision with 1:22 left.
Akron was making its first appearance in the final, and will have to wait until next season for a shot at making the NCAA field.
Central Michigan knows what that's like.
Bradford, arguably the MAC's best all-around player, spent 10 minutes of the first half on the bench after picking up two fouls.
But with one last possession, Guevara put her star back in for the final seconds and Bradford knocked down a step-back, off-balance 3-pointer as she fell to floor and the horn sounded, giving Central Michigan a 39-35 lead after an entertaining first 20 minutes.
One of the nation's highest-scoring teams, Akron, which came in averaging 75.9 points per game, wanted to push the tempo.
The Zips love to run, but so do the Chippewas, who scored 98 points in a win earlier this season against Saint Joseph's and dropped 92 on Akron in January.
Like Bradford, Tecca spent a chunk of the first half on the bench with two fouls. But just as she did in Friday's semifinal win over Ball State, Luburgh picked up the scoring slack and had 12 in the first half for the Zips. Taylor Ruper, who came in averaging just 8.6 per game, added 11.