Miami basketball: RedHawks spot in MAC tourney far from secure

Miami’s road to earning one of the eight slots for the Mid-American Conference tournament got rockier on Friday in the RedHawks’ second-last home game of the season.

The RedHawks were tied, 73-73, with the Akron Zips after fourth-year junior guard Isaiah Coleman-Lands sank two free throws with 4:02 left in regulation, but Akron senior guard Loren Cristain Jackson took over down the stretch, scoring eight straight Zips points, including a dagger-like 3-pointer for a 79-74 lead with 59 seconds left. Miami couldn’t recover.

“It was a hard-fought game between two teams going after each other,” fourth-year RedHawks’ coach Jack Owens said after the game. “It was very unfortunate for us with the outcome. We like to fight. Give them credit. They hit the shot with the shot clock going down that made it a two-possession game.

“They made one or two more plays than we did. We have to do a better job. Everyone came in and contributed. We have to continue to get better and stay together. It was good to get back out there and play. Our guys fought and did some good things. We’ve got to find a way to finish games off.”

The loss was Miami’s third straight and fourth in the last five games after a three-game winning streak and left the RedHawks (8-8 overall, 5-6 MAC) tied with Ball State for seventh place in the MAC going into Saturday’s schedule. Unlike previous seasons, when all 12 teams qualified for the tournament with the lowest eight seeds playing first-round games at the homes of seeds 5 through 8, the conference’s top eight teams qualify for the post-season tournament March 10-13 at Cleveland’s Rocket Mortgage Arena.

Miami went into Saturday’s MAC schedule as the seventh seed based on its 81-71 win over the Cardinals on January 19.

Miami’s effort to make the final eight is hampered by playing four of its last five games on the road. The RedHawks are scheduled to play on Tuesday at first-place Toledo, which beat them, 90-81, in Oxford on January 26. Following that game is a trip to play on February 20 at Northern Illinois, which went into Saturday 11th in the 12-team MAC, before a home game on February 27 against Kent State and visits to Bowling Green on March 2 and Akron on March 5.

Time is running out for possible rescheduling of Miami’s home games against Ohio and Eastern Michigan and road games at Western Michigan and Central Michigan, all so-far temporary pandemic victims. The MAC’s Michigan teams went into Saturday occupying three of the bottom four slots in the conference standings.

Miami fought back from an early eight-point deficit to take a six-point lead over the Zips with 2:40 left in the first half before settling for a 40-37 halftime lead. Junior guard Mekhi Lairy scored a career-high 24 points in close to 33 minutes while Coleman-Lands scored 12 in close to 20 minutes off the bench against Akron. Fourth-year junior James Beck also came off the bench to score 10 points, helping Miami build a 24-18 advantage in bench points, but it wasn’t enough to offset the Zips’ 11-4 advantage in second-chance points.

“We have to be better,” Owens said. “They got some second or third opportunities.”

“We had a few late turnovers, including one by myself,” Lairy said.

Coleman-Lands played almost the entire second half.

“He did a good job,” Owens said of the 6-foot-0 Indianapolis native. “He just got going and did some really good things with the ball. Isaiah’s been doing some really great things, and we wanted to keep him on the floor. He can make great shots and do good things with the ball.”

“He gives us energy off the bench and another ball-handler,” the 5-8 Lairy said.

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