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Tonight is all about getting in scoring position. Win, and the Zips will be right in the middle of the pack. Lose, and .. well, it's a real uphill climb to get a first-round bye. The Zips would have to be torrid over the final MAC East stretch to make up two games in the standings.
Ball State is 6-5 and boasts the conference's best scoring defense (62.7 ppg allowed).
Ball State starters: G Randy Davis, G Jauwan Scaife, G Tyrae Robinson, F Chris Bond and F Jarrod Jones.
Akron unveiled a new player introductions video. It was OK, I guess.
Akron's starters: Zeke Marshall, Steve McNees, Nik Cvetinovic, Darryl Roberts, and Brett McClanahan.
Most casual Akron fans will know Jones, the Cardinals' star. He is ninth in the MAC in scoring (14.8 ppg) and second in rebounding (8.5 rpg).
Marshall got his first swat early, on a guard's fade-away from the baseline.
I am very envious of Bond, for his name of course. I would challenge any of my readers to a James Bond movie trivia contest. My envy of the Cardinals' guard is simply this: How cool would it be to introduce yourself by saying, "The name's Bond, ________ Bond."
McNees hit a 3. He has five early points for Akron.
Davis, the BSU point guard, is listed generously at 5-foot-11. He is second in the conference in assists. Alex Abreu is eighth on that list.
A couple is sharing a romantic dinner in one of the corners of the arena, near the track, overlooking the court. I'm sure we will soon learn that it's a promotion from a local restaurant. I think they could probably sell those tickets for each game if they wanted. A comparable experience, the Terrace Club is a great place to enjoy dinner.
Marshall logged swat no. 2 -- on Jones at the top of the key.
Ball State coach Billy Taylor is one of the few coaches who spends some of the game in a seat. In contrast, there is not even a chair for Keith Dambrot.
McNees, a 70 percent free throw shooter, missed a pair.
Marshall picked up his second foul, a cheap one, when he was trying to cut off a lane from Davis. Fans were upset on the next play when Mike Bardo barely earned a foul.
Scaife just drilled Abreu with a forearm as Scaife was trying to fend off Abreu's aggressive defense. An intentional foul was called. A player with less composure would have gotten in Scaife's face. Akron gets two free throws and the ball. Scaife was lucky a similar call wasn't made earlier in the game when he threw a haymaker that didn't land.
Marshall has 59 blocks this year. That is a record for any sophomore. He already had the freshman record.
The aforementioned diners are eating in Rhodes Arena, courtesy of Bravo! restaurant. I'm not into giving free advertisements, but their food is mighty delicious. When I take my lady friend there, I generally get the bell-shaped pasta with shrimp and spicy red sauce. Delicious.
Josh Egner is getting some rare first-half run after Brett McKnight committed his second foul. Neither Egner nor Dakotah Euton has been in Dambrot's rotation for the past couple months. In his first couple minutes of action tonight, Egner committed an offensive foul (with which the fans disagreed), committed a defensive foul and made a mid-range jump shot from the baseline.
McNees has made two passes to nonexistent players tonight. The most recent hit a Cardinals staff member in the chest. It's true that he was open.
We just witnessed one of the ugliest minutes of basketball you'll see. The ball bounced every which-way. Turnovers. Easy shots blown. It was like the players took shots of Jack Daniels at the prior timeout. Dambrot mercifully called timeout to allow both teams to sober up.
In other MACtion ... Central Michigan is up four on BG with a few minutes to go. Ohio and Buffalo lost to Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan, respectively. Miami is up four on Toledo in the second half. Kent State won by seven at NIU.
Cvetinovic had an embarrassing moment. He made a steal, led the break and jumped for his dunk attempt about two steps early. You could almost sense his thought process in midair: "Oh crap. Jordan couldn't have thrown down from where I took off from." The Serbian threw the ball off the backboard with his left arm, which was cupping the ball in anticipation for throwing down. Cvetinovic stayed down for about 20 seconds, writhing in pain over an ankle injury that no one else saw. He got up and within minutes was playing as if nothing happened.
In Nikola's defense, we've all been there. A dude crosses you over in the gym, your knee buckles and he drives for an easy dunk. You stay on the floor to stop the spectators from gasping at how badly you were burned. After all, they don't know your knee is just fine.
Before the half, McNees threw up a 3 that bounced off the rim. Bardo glided by and dropped it in the net before the buzzer. Dambrot ran up to Bardo after the play and, rather than congratulate him, grilled him on defensive technique from the play before.
Halftime - Akron 31, Ball State 23
Halftime stats of note: Cvetinovic has eight point. Jones grabbed six boards. Davis dished three assists. The Zips shot 40.6 percent compared to Ball State's 38.5 percent. The teams combined to make only 6-of-13 free throw attempts.
The human hampster ball race at halftime got some laughs. The female student tumbled in the inflated ball and ... (how do I put this?) she had a slight wardrobe malfunction. The "cheeky" mishap "cracked" up the fans.
Ball State has had a rough path through the MAC East, beating only Buffalo. The Cardinals were the class of the West, but perhaps this is just another year where the East is much better.
Central Michigan pulled off the upset over Bowling Green. If Miami loses, the Zips can gain a game over each team ahead of them with a win tonight except Kent and Western Michigan. Miami and Toledo are tied at 51 with 7 minutes left.
Ball State freshman Matt Kamieniecki went on a 5-0 run by himself. His father Scott Kamieniecki played 10 seasons in Major League Baseball. He started 138 games, mostly with the Yankees, but also a short stint in 2000 with the Indians. Speaking of which, is anyone else super excited for Opening Day? Maybe it's just me.
Marshall should be fresh. He got a very long rest after committing his second foul early in the first half. Maybe he's too fresh. He just put seven feet of distance on a four-foot hook shot.
Miami is now losing at Toledo. If that score holds, Kent State will hold a two-game lead in the conference over everyone. It's ironic, because KSU isn't great in any category. Just a very solid team that hasn't hiccuped yet.
Marshall made a critical block on Jones, who was under the hoop with the ball. The next time down, Marshall picked up his third foul.
Akron went on a 7-0 run to extend its lead to nine.
The Zips have played much more aggressively on defense. Abreu, in particular, is moving his feet well and getting up in the point guard's shirt. The only downside is that the refs are calling a tight game.
McKnight drilled a 3 to extend the lead to 12. Cvetinovic followed with a mid-range jumper. Timeout Ball State. The fans are pumped about this 12-0 run. This is the first time all year that Akron has sensed blood and become even stronger.
My jaw just dropped with the amount of motion and passing the Zips executed on offense. What happened to the stagnant offense from the past few months?
Ball State went on a 6-0 run. The ball boy under Akron's basket wouldn't know. He is busy texting someone, and has been for the past few minutes. Elton Alexander can't believe it.
Miami came from behind to win by two at Toledo. The RedHawks will be in second place. The Zips will likely need to surpass both Buffalo and Bowling Green (both 7-4) to earn a first-round bye. The West champion gets the No. 2 seed.
Jones and Marshall both went up for the same rebound, and both got their hands on it. That's a testament to Jones' leaping ability. We know Marshall can jump for a 7-footer. The 6-9 Jones also has long arms for his height.
How cool is it that every NCAA Tournament game will be televised!? This has been a long time coming. There have been studies about how corporate productivity suffers during those first few rounds. It can only get worse now that the incentive to sit at home has been intensified.
A lot was made of the 20-win mark at the last press conference. With a win, Akron will sit at 15-10. The Zips will have at least seven games to win five, including next Saturday's BracketBuster. You probably can chalk up three wins of the six remaining regular season games. If the Zips earn a first-round bye, then they probably will have won their five games already. If not, they will have a cake home game, for a fourth win. Then they would have win a quarterfinal contest to reach 20.
The game has slowed down since the Zips' 12-0 run. A McKnight 3 gave Akron its biggest margin tonight of 17.
The Cavs finally won last night. I've been trying to determine if there's a college player really worth a top-three pick right now. Jared Sullenger has a load of intangibles, but I'm concerned about his lack of athleticism. I would love Jimmer Fredette, but he's probably only a borderline lottery pick because of his perceived defensive shortcomings.
The band is playing Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper." I saw BOC live a few years ago -- and they were awful. Some groups keep a little magic as the members reach their 60s. These guys were listless. The other two acts that night were Paul Rodgers, whom you know I adore, and Mark Farner, previously of Grand Funk Railroad. Farner and Rodgers were phenomenal.
Over the last three games, Akron's opponents have made only 6-of-35 on 3-point attempts (17 percent).
McClanahan has two blocks tonight. Before tonight, he had only had one -- in his entire 80-game career.
McKnight threw a nice baseball-style outlet pass ahead for a McClanahan layup. This game is well in hand, the Zips leading by 16 with two minutes to go.
The Zips surpassed oddsmakers' expectations, who tagged the spread at Akron minus 6.5. It was Akron's seventh-straight over the Cardinals.
Dambrot is now tied with Ben Braun for eighth most wins (174) for a MAC coach (while coaching a MAC team).
Final Score - Akron 75, Ball State 60
Abreu will be invited to his first press conference, along with McNees. Abreu scored 11. McNees led Akron with 16.
Final stats of note: Five Zips were in double figures (also McClanahan (10), Cvetinovic (13) and McKnight (12)). Jones scored 19 and tied for a game-high in rebounds (8) with Cvetinovic.
Oddly enough, Ball State outshot the Zips, 46.8 percent to 41 percent. Akron made 14-of-16 free throws in the second half. The Zips committed only eight turnovers (Ball State had 14). Akron won the rebounding battle, 35 to 30.
Marshall didn't score a point, attempting one field goal. But he played well against Jones defensively.
"We hit that one bad stretch. I said, 'Guys, can you please try to play a little harder.' We are getting a little more consistently good than bad. We still haven't shot the ball as well as we can."
"We were so bad for awhile. We only concerned ourselves with us. I haven't read a paper in five or six weeks, the Internet. I've narrowed in on us. It still comes down to us. I told the guys in the lockerroom that they have the ability to make the greatest comeback of all time for me."
"I thought Nik was very good for us. He made Jones work to catch. He's capable of that. He should build his game on defense. He also made the extra pass tonight. I thought he played a good game for us."
"We just couldn't keep Zeke out of foul trouble. Bardo had a tough time on Jones."
"We are starting to make more hustle plays. This team does one thing better than any team we've ever had. We dribble-drive it better than any team we've had. Alex is a handful. He does a really good job of getting into the lane."
"I thought we played pretty good defensively. The numbers don't really indicate that. As long as we're not getting shot out at the 3 line, we're OK. We're going to win if we hold to 60 most nights."
"We did a good job of not letting Scaife go nuts on us."
"The thing we need to do is we need to run the break. When we run the break, we are a good team."
"This league's always tough when it comes down to the end."
"Ball State is playing well this year. We expected them to get back into it. On our end, it's a little more focus and that entails playing harder. When we get a lead, we need to kick it in gear even more."
"Nik's very emotional. When he's playing like that, getting his hands on everything ... He's a high-energy guy. He can guard one through five."
On Cvetinovic's debacle: "We gave him a lot of 'Not Top 10' comments."
"I got to the hoop a little bit, which I'm not known for."
"The last couple practices, the coach has been really on us on defense and closing out. We got after it harder."
"After that timeout, coach said we need to really play hard. Right after that, we just played harder, man."
Dambrot "always tells me about my focus. He felt like I did what I had to do in running plays and taking care of the ball."