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The Zips are 1.5-point underdogs. Rarely does Akron get a nonconference home test like this.
Alex Abreu is dressed and seems to be running fine in warmups. If he contributes tonight, it would be an amazing comeback.
The main storyline tonight, of course, is Shaka Smart's return to Akron in the year following his team's Final Four run. Michael Beaven wrote about Smart's relationship with Keith Dambrot, which is quite close. Dambrot went so far as to say Smart might be his best friend, and that he'd never schedule VCU because of how it makes him feel to play against his friend.
VCU's starters: Darius Theus, DJ Haley, Troy Daniels, Bradford Burgess and Juvonte Reddic.
Akron's starters: Abreu, Brian Walsh, Chauncey Gilliam, Nik Cvetinovic and Zeke Marshall.
The crowd is getting really dense, except for the endzone bleachers. Why again wouldn't Dambrot want to do this every year???
Pregame -- Akron 0, VCU 0
Perhaps trying to show he's A-OK, Abreu dashed down the court on Akron's first possession, leading a fast break that did not end in points.
After two turnovers in three possessions, Akron got on the board with back-to-back Walsh 3-pointers.
Marshall will have a difficult matchup against Haley, who is a 7-footer who appears strong and athletic.
Akron's first subs were Quincy Diggs, Demetrius Treadwell and Brett McClanahan. Walsh and Marshall stay on the floor.
15:36 -- Akron 8, VCU 8
This has a "big game" feel. I'm sure VCU is accustomed to that on the road this year. Akron is less so. The Zips have committed four turnovers in as many minutes.
Nick Harney is active tonight. Josh Egner is not (back).
The fans are extra testy tonight about the refereeing. The refs aren't the cause for Akron to average a turnover per minute. VCU is on a 9-0 run.
Akron has not yet thrown the ball to Marshall in the post. But VCU isn't going inside either. It's almost as if both teams have conceded that the big men cancel each other out.
Boy, this really feels like a MAC game. On a good Zips' moment, the fans are LOUD! Akron has responded with a 7-0 run to tie the game at 15.
Terry Bowden is out here, and he's going crazy, yelling "Go Zips!" at center court. He went on to say: "When I mean winning, I mean winning. I mean winning MAC Championships and bringing that Wagon Wheel back to Akron. Go Zips! Beat VCU, but more importantly, beat Kent!"
11:11 -- Akron 15, VCU 15
Bowden caused me to do something I've only done once before in my seven years of sports writing ... I clapped on accident on press row, which is against the press row rules.
Dambrot screamed at Marshall for a play where Marshall gave a VCU player a little shove. No one saw it, except Dambrot. But it shows that keeping Marshall out of foul trouble is a key goal.
Unlike Marshall, VCU's big man is a terrible shooter. But Haley might be more athletic than Marshall, and he's definitely stronger.
Akron is on a 13-1 run.
7:37 -- Akron 21, VCU 16
Harney entered the game at the 5:28 mark for the first time in three weeks.
Akron went on a run when the team started taking care of the ball. Now, with a string of turnovers, VCU retook the lead.
McClanahan showed a little flair when he gathered a long rebound, weaved around defenders and spun home a finger roll.
3:09 -- Akron 32, VCU 29
I want to congratulate Mr. Beaven, by the way. He was hired yesterday as the Akron Beacon Journal's new high school sports reporter. He had been a freelance writer for the ABJ for way, way too long. He's a hard-working writer and a good guy. I'm really happy for him.
Akron has moved to a 1-2-2 zone. Dambrot is yelling at the players to keep their hands up, to take away passing lanes -- or at least make them look smaller.
Harney has two buckets already off the dribble. He has fantastic touch and smooth athleticism.
Harney then made a big mistake with 38 seconds left. He took the ball into the rim, rather than pull out for the last shot of the half. Harney traveled, however, before reaching his destination. VCU got the last shot of the half. Cvetinovic ran into Trevon Graham on a 3-point attempt; Graham made one of three attempts.
Halftime -- Akron 36, VCU 32
Notable halftime stats: Akron is shooting 51.7 percent; VCU is shooting 46.2 percent. Akron has nine assists and 11 turnovers. VCU has four assists and seven turnovers. Walsh leads scorers with 11. Cvetinovic has 10 points and four rebounds. Abreu has three assists, as well as five points.
I'm going back to the media room to say hi to our new football coach.
I would compare Coach Bowden's experience to a politician at a big campaign stop. He's shaking hands, smiling, sweating, telling stories, sweating ... He's definitely a friendly guy, and appears genuine. His speech at halfcourt reminded me of a stump speech.
15:53 -- Akron 48, VCU 38
Coach Bowden was asked to draw the winning number for an iPad giveaway.
Mayor Don Plusquellic, fresh off his swearing-in, is in the house.
Akron has quickly racked up fouls in the second half. They have six with 12:48 left.
The Zips have held this modest lead of around six or 10 for the entire half, but they're missing opportunities to stomp on their throats.
McClanahan might have turned the momentum from neutral to favoring Akron. He splashed a 3, while being fouled and falling into the Akron bench. Four-point play.
Briante Weber banked in a 3 from the wing. He almost looked mad afterward. Dude, you got the points.
11:44 -- Akron 54, VCU 45
If you were to tell me that Akron would have 17 turnovers with 11:44 left, I would have assumed the following: 1) Abreu didn't play. 2) Deji Ibitayo had been robbed more than a Cadillac on Grant Street. 3) The Zips lost by 20.
Akron's season high on turnovers is 20, against West Virginia. Walsh has five. Diggs has four.
The foul issue is going to make a difference tonight. On Akron's next foul, VCU will shoot two. Mind you, there is still 10:27 left in the game.
Akron had been outrebounding VCU by a wide margin, but VCU has closed the gap. Sensing that, Dambrot got Treadwell back on the floor.
The fans are getting increasingly irritated with the lack of fouls on VCU, and the plethora going the other way. When VCU was finally called for one, the fans gave a Bronx cheer. Cvetinovic joined in with applause, and the ref pulled him aside, likely warning him.
VCU tied the game, and the Rams are on a 15-3 run.
7:47 -- Akron 57, VCU 57
Abreu and Diggs knocked down 3-pointers coming out of a timeout to bring the lead back to six. The two gave each other chest bumps and inadvertently ran into a VCU player, which made Smart visibly angry.
The Zips are 10-for-17 on 3-pointers. This game would be much different if Akron wasn't hitting these well-timed 3s.
Smart is rotating nine players. For that reason, it surprises me that he is not pressing more. The Rams were successful in forcing turnovers doing that.
The boos are at an all-time high now. Abreu pumpfaked on a 3 and got the VCU player in the air. Abreu leaned into the flying Ram while launching the ball wildly into the air. No call.
Smart and Diggs were jawing back and forth at each other as the players headed to the benches for a timeout.
Marshall was called for a very questionable foul on Haley. I don't see why fans are upset. It's only three fouls for Marshall, and Haley is clumsy at the line.
3:08 -- Akron 65, VCU 65
I'll tell you what, I'm not impressed with VCU. The Rams get their hands on a lot of balls, but their offense is not organized. I really liked them last year. My bracket showed the Rams going to the Elite Eight, in fact. This year? Not so much.
Abreu has bricked two front ends of one-and-one free throws. Those are costly. On the next possession, he led a fast break in which he was the only Zips player past the 3-point line. Not even close.
Burgess nailed a 3 to give VCU a three-point lead. Cvetinovic answered with a 3-point play.
1:29 -- Akron 68, VCU 68
Both teams are in the double-bonus. Dambrot has a shooter-friendly lineup on the floor to take advantage of that: McClanahan, Diggs, Walsh, Marshall and Cvetinovic.
Theus got out of control and coughed up the ball in the lane. Akron's ball with 51 seconds left, 31 on the shot clock. Think they miss Joey Rodriguez?
0:51 -- Akron 68, VCU 68
Abreu subbed in for Walsh for offense.
Diggs made a cut off the elbow, pump faked, then banked it in from eight feet, while being fouled. That's Reddic's fifth foul. Diggs missed the free throw, and Cvetinovic committed a foul on the loose ball.
Graham made both. Akron gets the ball back with the shot clock off, 35 seconds left.
0:26 -- Akron 70, VCU 70
Same five on the floor for the Zips. The Zips fumbled around with poor dribbling around the logo at center court until the eight-second mark. Eventually, the ball found Cvetinovic, who bobbled the ball on his way up. Catching it, the Serb clanked it off the side of the rim. Overtime.
End of Regulation -- Akron 70, VCU 70
That was an ugly, ugly final possession. Maybe it's good to identify that weakness before it costs you a MAC game. Wow. That made you want to close your eyes, all the way through.
Akron finally got the ball to Marshall on the low-post. Haley plucked the ball right from his hands.
Marshall got his first break of the night, when a free throw hit off the back of the rim, soared as high as the top of the backboard, and fell through the net.
Fans are irate that the refs are missing calls. They should be furious that Cvetinovic continues to clank 3-point shots. He's not a shooter, no matter how much time he spends in Europe. For the same reason I don't want to see Abreu post up, I don't want to see the Serb chuck 3s. Aside from that, he's having a solid game.
0:31 -- Akron 73, VCU 74
Akron has the ball with 23 seconds left on the shot clock. They need to get a bucket. I'd put Treadwell and Harney on the floor.
Abreu threw a ballsy entry pass over Haley; heck, it was far above where most of us thought Marshall could catch it. But he did, and Haley fouled him. Marshall swished the first to tie the game. He made the second.
Timeout VCU. Shot clock off. Akron up one.
0:20 -- Akron 75, VCU 74
Burgess got the ball, drove to the lane and found Theus cutting backdoor. Theus made the layup under Marshall's block attempt with 2.7 seconds left.
Walsh drove the ball to the circle and launched a chest pass off the top of the backboard.
Final score -- Akron 75, VCU 76
Great game. Akron played well for 25 minutes, and then just relaxed.
Notable final stats: Akron shot 46.4 percent, including 10-of-20 on 3s; VCU was 39.7 percent. Akron had 15 assists and 20 turnovers. VCU had 13 and 13. Cvetinovic scored 21 and grabbed seven boards. Marshall scored 10, had only three rebounds but blocked six shots. Burgess had 19 and seven, including 10-for-10 at the free-throw line. Walsh had five turnovers. Diggs and Abreu had four each. The teams had 35 and 36 rebounds, and if you care which is which, you can look it up yourself.
This is the kind of game that makes me happy to still do the blog. The atmosphere was great, and the back-and-forth made it like a heavyweight fight. It stings to be on the losing side, but really, what's it matter? Akron learned a couple of lessons, or at least they should: 1) They don't have anyone who is comfortable with the ball in crunch time. 2) They need to develop a killer instinct.
On Marshall's block attempt and the final shot: "I tried to get it off as quick as I can."
"Coach is always talking about adversity. We had to battle through, find other ways to score. I got my game going."
On Marshall: "It felt like he blocked 18 shots. He changed the game. It was incredible."
On the swing in rebounding: "Coach said whoever had the rebounding advantage would win the game. At at time, they were killing us. Second half, towards the end, we started picking it up. Overtime, we rebounded better."
"It was a terrific college basketball game. It's too bad someone had to lose. For 45 minutes, both teams played their hearts out. Akron had it going. They were making shots. They had a 10-point lead and could have easily extended it."
On the last play: "I can't say we ran it to perfection. It was a broken play. We wanted to get the ball to Brad at the top of the key. He did a nice job getting into the lane. They lost Darius. When D got the ball, I was hoping he got it off in time. Marshall, it says here he blocked six shots. I think he blocked 18."
"I think they got a phenomenal team. A lot like our team, they're young and they're still finding themselves. We defended well a bunch of possessions, but they made tough 3s. I think Akron's going to be terrific. Keith, to me, is one of the best coaches in the country."
"Winning this game is very gratifying for us. It's something we can put in our back pocket in January and February. It's always good to be able to draw on experience."
"I'd rather not coach against him. It's not just him. I coached Ricky McFadden. I cheer like those guys for crazy. I'm their number one fan. My wife is from Akron. I can promise you this. We won't be scheduling Akron anymore. On a night like this, I'd prefer both of us win."
On coaching against Dambrot: "We talked (this week), but it was meaningless conversations. Normally, we talk about basketball. We talked three or four times this week, but it was like 'Are you doing OK?' 'OK, talk to you later.' I was talking to him, trying to figure that out (whether Abreu and Harney would play). Keith has a Rule of Six. For every piece of information he gets, he wants six in return."
"I don't know why I feel this way, but I do. I can't remember being this disappointed in an outcome since Miami when they banked it in against us on a clock malfunction. We needed to get a stop in regulation. We needed a stop at the end, but we didn't get that. We hung in there through adversity. Alex and Nik were courageous. Alex played 37 minutes on a seven-day repair. We just didn't get some loose balls. They just got more of those hustle plays when it mattered. We still overcame that and had a great chance to win."
"VCU's a good team. Are they a great team? They're a good team. They're well-coached. They're good at what they do."
"We've been up and down with a lot of things. They're very, very athletic. So they can tire you. If you don't stay at it and go after things ... Balls that Zeke affected, we didn't chase down by our guards. That's the most disappointing thing to me. Turnovers, we are going to turn the ball over with this group."
"If Quincy makes a free throw, we probably win, right? He made a great play. Made a good jump stop and scored it. He's an 83, 84 percent free thrower. He just missed it.
"The last play, they fumbled and bumbled it around. They threw it to their best guy. We just turned our head."
"I knew probably four days ago (that Abreu would play). This is very rare for a guy to come back so quickly. You gotta give the kid a lot of credit. That's courageous what he did. The last time we had a meniscus tear was Jeremiah Wood. It was VCU ironically when he came back. Had they told me he wasn't ready to play, we weren't going to play him. A little bit of rust."
On the last play in regulation: "We wanted to give it to him on the left side, to drive him right and have Zeke box in. We bobbled it up a little bit."
"What's the difference between 7-6 and 8-5? I'm not going to let it rain on my parade. We got a great schedule. We have Marshall who is in the top 30 RPI. Then we go on the road for five of seven. We're going to find out a lot about ourselves over the next month. We're a scary team. We're a team that nobody's going to want to play in March."
"Once the game started, I wanted to kick (Shaka's) behind, maybe more than any other opponent. It was hard during the week. That's probably my biggest basketball confidant. We had to keep a lot of things under wraps. You don't pay your coach $1.2 million if you don't care about basketball. It's a big ballgame for them, and it's a big game for us. I don't mind playing VCU, but hopefully he's not there next time."
"I don't have brothers and sisters, but that guy's as close to as a brother as I've got. He's a tireless worker, set the whole philosophy for the program. He's 26 when he started. He talked to this middle-aged guy, 'We're going to win with high-character guys, no junior college guys.' The one thing about him is that he's got tremendous loyalty. He cares about us. He always calls when things are going tough for us. It's hard to play your brothers. Still wish we would of won. Wish he was miserable and I wasn't."
"It was the first big challenge for us this year, except Mississippi State. I give a lot of credit to our coaching staff because they prepared us for it. We prepared a lot for up-tempo. We played for each other. We executed. One play."
"It's definitely a great learning experience. Every single game in the East in the MAC is going to be a big game."