The University of Akron basketball team finds itself in an enviable position after Wednesday night’s 79-68 Mid-American Conference victory over Bowling Green at Rhodes Arena.
With three games left in the regular season, the Zips (20-8, 12-1 MAC) have a three-game lead in the MAC’s East Division, virtually guaranteeing them the regular-season title — barring a complete collapse — and one of two coveted double-byes in the MAC Tournament.
They clinched at least one bye with the win.
“I don’t think we should ever take a breather,” junior center Zeke Marshall said of the possibility of not having to play with the same intensity the rest of the regular season. “I think we’re going to approach every game like we’re going to win them all, just to show that we can go into the MAC championship with good … confidence.”
The Zips used a strong inside game to outscore the Falcons 42-28 in the paint. Marshall led five Zips who scored in double figures with 16 points and seven rebounds. He was followed by three teammates with 12 points each.
“I just think we were relentless,” Marshall said. “[Quincy] Diggs, me, Nik Cvetinovic we all just played well. We sealed hard and we just got openings.”
For Marshall, who had just one rebound in the Zips’ loss to Oral Roberts on Saturday, it was a nice bounce back.
“Zeke is the main difference maker we have,” UA coach Keith Dambrot said. “I was so upset [about Oral Roberts] that I started coaching him myself Monday.”
Marshall made a difference, but he had plenty of help.
With a shade over five minutes left in the first half, nine Zips had scored. The Falcons (14-13. 7-6) came into the game with a 5-1 record in February, and they showed that they weren’t about to roll over and quit, despite every effort by the Zips to break the game open at various stages in the second half.
It looked as if they’d done so when guard Alex Abreu (12 points) connected on a 3-point shot to give the Zips a 60-48 lead.
The Falcons had other ideas and used a trapping, ball-pressure defense to go on a 14-5 run to cut the Zips’ lead to 67-64 with 2:17 left in the game.
After a defensive rebound, Abreu found teammate Brian Walsh for a layup that gave the Zips some breathing room with 1:28 left.
“I just saw the lane and Alex threw a great bounce pass. I tried to absorb the contact and get a bucket,” Walsh said. “I just thank God it went in.”
They needed every last point and every last body, as defense proved to be in short supply on both teams’ parts.
In a half that flew by like a summer wind, the Zips shot 60 percent from the floor and the Falcons weren’t far behind at 55 percent.
But the difference in the scoring proved to be fundamental as the Zips scored with ease from inside with Marshall and forward Demetrius Treadwell inflicting the damage.
“The tone of the game was set for us in the first half on the defensive end,” Falcons coach Louis Orr said. “We had too many holes in our defense. It set the wrong tone.”
Indeed, of the 42 points the Zips scored in the paint, 32 came in the first half. Orr gave much of the credit to Marshall and Treadwell (10 points, two rebounds).
The Falcons, however, found all their early success from shooting outside, but it didn’t last.
Although they put themselves in a position to walk away with a win in the latter stages of the game, the Zips deserve credit for icing the Falcons in the second half, as they made just 35 percent of their shots.
George M. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Zips blog at http://zips.ohio.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.