CLEVELAND – Akron ran out of magic and ran out of gas.
Unable to contain a Central Michigan team with more balance, better athletes and bent on finishing the job after a heartbreaking loss last season, the Zips fell 86-68 on Saturday to the Chippewas in the Mid-American Conference championship.
Akron finished with the most wins in school history, but came up short in its first MAC title game.
"I'm very proud of our kids," Zips coach Jodi Kest said. "I told them that one game, a win or a loss, does not define our season. We had 23 wins, something nobody expected except the kids in the locker room and our coaching staff."
Crystal Bradford scored 13 points with 10 rebounds and Jessica Schroll scored 14 as Central Michigan (21-11) won its first MAC championship and NCAA berth since 1984.
The Zips were playing their third game in three days and it caught up with them.
"I was tired," Akron guard Hanna Luburgh said. "Three games in a row is a lot. Playing a lot of minutes, it got to me. Down the stretch was hard."
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.
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.
Despite the loss, the Zips had plenty to feel good about.
"When I first got here as a freshman we had only won 12 or 13 games," Luburgh, a junior, said. "Even last year, that's all we won. To think back where we were last year at this time, we were already home. It's really nice that we could get to where we were."
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.
The Zips did their best to hang around, but DiGuilio's 3-pointers kept them at a distance.