The first half provided a laundry list of why the University of Akron should not have been ahead at halftime of Tuesday’s game against Miami University at Rhodes Arena.
The RedHawks abused the Zips inside offensively and defensively and on the fast break.
But the listless effort from the first half gave way to a team that actually looked as if it wanted to win, not just play, and came away with a 72-58 Mid-American Conference win that clinched a second consecutive MAC regular-season title for the Zips (24-5, 14-1).
“I just thought it was going to be emotionally difficult after kind of getting our bubble burst [against Buffalo],” Zips coach Keith Dambrot said of his team’s first game after snapping a 19-game winning streak.
A 13-2 run to open the second half turned a 31-28 lead into a 44-30 advantage that led to the Zips cutting down the nets after the game.
“I think we have to be honest in attributing some of it to them,” Miami coach John Cooper said. “But I thought there are plays we left out on the court that we didn’t make.”
Zeke Marshall led the Zips with 14 points and eight rebounds and forward Nick Harney followed him with 13 points and four rebounds.
John Harris led the RedHawks (8-20, 3-12) and all scorers with 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting, followed by Will Felder with 11 points and four rebounds.
Beyond the celebration lies a sobering fact. UA needs to be playing better basketball with the MAC Tournament looming and a possible NCAA Tournament bid on the line.
For 60 consecutive minutes (the Buffalo game and the first half of the Miami game), that wasn’t the Zips. Turnovers and spurts of shoddy defense marred what should have been a successful first half against the RedHawks.
The decisive 13-2 run came courtesy of a couple of key 3-point shots and a couple of easy dunks during that span.
“We made some shots,” Dambrot said. “I thought we shot the ball much better in the second half. That’s going to be key for us. Our problem has been that we haven’t had that spurt ability because we haven’t shot the ball that well from the outside.”
The Zips shot a solid 54 percent in the second half and 50 percent overall for the game and produced back-to-back MAC titles, only the third time that feat has been accomplished.
They’ll go into Friday’s game against rival Kent State looking to build on the victory even though both teams are set as far as seeding (UA is No. 1 and KSU is No. 4) in the MAC Tournament.
“That’s a rival game. That’s just pride in general,” Marshall said. “That’s bragging rights for students and for us as players to keep winning and show that we’re still the dominant force in the MAC. So it’s still a meaningful game.”
The Zips have a bye into the semifinals of the MAC Tournament as the top seed. With a 19-game winning streak gone, they will concentrate on earning their spot into the NCAA Tournament from there.
“We just need to play. Don’t worry. Don’t put pressure on yourself, just go out and play,” Marshall said regarding what his team needs to do from now on. “Even though we haven’t been playing our best, if you play hard as you’re capable of playing, you’re going to win.”
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Zips blog at http://www.ohio.com/zips. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.