CLEVELAND -- Armon Bassett walked into the interview room lugging the Mid-American Conference championship trophy under his arm. After sliding into his chair on the dais, Ohio's star guard proudly propped the treasure on the table in front of him.
He wasn't letting it out of his sight.
"I've got a tight grip on it," Bassett said with a smile. "I can't believe it."
Ohio, given little chance of winning the MAC title when the tournament began, capped a stunning run through the top of the field Saturday night by beating defending champion Akron 81-75 in overtime to earn the Bobcats the league's automatic NCAA bid.
Bassett scored 25 and freshman D.J. Cooper had 23 and made three big plays in overtime as the ninth-seeded Bobcats (21-14) became the lowest-seeded team to win the league title. After winning at Ball State in the opening round, they came to Cleveland and knocked off top-seeded Kent State, fourth-seeded Miami (Ohio) and finally the third-seeded Zips (24-10).
"It wasn't easy," said Ohio coach John Groce.
For the Bobcats, nothing was.
This wasn't supposed to be their year, yet they overcame injuries, player suspensions and a rash of close losses to win their first MAC crown since 2005.
"We went through a lot of stuff this year and we all stayed together," said Bassett, who began his college career at Indiana, but left in the wake of coach Kelvin Sampson's dismissal. "A lot of teams would have thrown in the towel, but we kept working hard. All 12 guys came to practice with their hard hats on."
Bassett was named the tournament MVP, finishing with 116 points in Ohio's four wins over an unforgettable seven-day stretch.
Jimmy Conyers led Akron with 19 points and 12 rebounds, and Chris McKnight scored 18 with 10 boards. The Zips' fourth straight title game appearance ended with another tough loss. Three years ago, they were beaten on a last-second bank shot by Miami (Ohio).
This time, they lost to a team on a mission.
"We have nothing to be embarrassed about," Akron coach Keith Dambrot said. "We fought our behinds off. We tried. That's all that matters to me."
The Zips couldn't contain Bassett and Cooper, who combined for 48 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists and seven 3-pointers.
"They're unbelievable," McKnight said. "You can't give them any space or the ball is going up. And if it's going up, it's going in."
As is almost always the case, the MAC final delivered.
There were 13 ties, 24 lead changes, countless crucial plays and five extra minutes of heart-pounding action.
Bassett's two free throws gave Ohio a 68-65 lead with 13.5 seconds to go in regulation, but just as he did in the Zips' double-overtime win in the quarterfinals against Eastern Michigan, Akron junior guard Steve McNees came down and buried a 3-pointer from the top of the key to tie it.
Ohio had the last shot, but Cooper was long with a 12-foot jumper as the horn sounded.
He more than made up for it in overtime.
And before he went back on the floor, Cooper and his teammates got a message from Groce.
"Don't flinch," he said he told them.
Cooper, the MAC's freshman of the year, drained a 3-pointer to give Ohio a 73-70 lead, and moments later, he blocked a layup by McNees under the basket. McNees did make another 3 to tie it 75-all, but Bassett hit a soft bank shot, and after a missed 3 by Akron, Cooper drained two free throws to make it 79-75 with 24.9 seconds left.
Down by four and out of timeouts, the Zips were forced to launch from the outside but badly missed both attempts. The loose ball found its way into the hands of Bassett, who went in for a dunk, providing an exclamation point to Ohio's improbable title.
When the horn sounded, Ohio's players swarmed in front of their bench, celebrating something only they thought was possible.
The Bobcats opened the tourney on the road at Ball State, where they found themselves trailing by 10 with 10 minutes to go. They rallied to win that one in overtime, earning a trip to Cleveland. In three days inside Quicken Loans Arena, they defied the odds by upsetting three of the league's top four seeds.
Ohio's conference season began with four consecutive losses, and there were other obstacles along the way. Steven Coleman, the team's top returning player, broke his hand in December and didn't play again. Forward DeVaughn Washington was suspended for five games in midseason for team violations. Freshman guard Jay Kinney was suspended twice and dismissed by Groce last month.
When the tourney began, the Bobcats, with only one senior on their roster, were an afterthought.
Now, they're champions.
Groce said it would be a while before it sunk in.
"When I get my two hours sleep," he said, "I'll probably take a deep breath and say, 'Wow.' To come here and play Kent, Miami, our archrival, and Akron. It wasn't easy."