KENT: Is it a measure of greatness when a college basketball team can play poorly for 30 minutes and still pull out a victory over its archrival?
If so, it could be an exciting March for the University of Akron Zips.
In the first half Saturday against Kent State at the M.A.C. Center, UA was outhustled, outmuscled, outrebounded and outshot. Seven-foot senior center Zeke Marshall was virtually invisible, except when KSU junior Mark Henninger got his money’s worth with a hard foul on Marshall six minutes before the break.
Even when the Zips realized it was time to turn it on, the Golden Flashes held onto the lead until 8:25 remained in the game.
As ugly as it looked, the Zips still came up with big 3-pointers from Alex Abreu and Brian Walsh and big free throws from Marshall down the stretch to escape with a 71-67 victory.
UA (13-4, 4-0 in the Mid-American Conference) has won five in a row against Kent State (11-7, 2-2).
On an afternoon when they had so little reward for their first-half effort that UA coach Keith Dambrot didn’t even yell at them in the locker room, the Zips found a way to get it done. Before tipoff, many believed that UA would win in a rout against the young, inexperienced Flashes.
“They’re good,” Dambrot said. “Don’t be fooled by all that youngness, that youngness isn’t all bad.”
Could the outcome be a good sign as the Zips battle Ohio for MAC supremacy and try to avenge a loss to the Bobcats in last year’s league tournament final?
Is this Zips team too deep, too talented, too big inside and too well-coached to be denied its second trip to the NCAA Tournament in the past three years?
Is overconfidence the Zips’ second-biggest foe besides the Bobcats?
Dambrot might chastise me for such lofty suggestions, especially with 13 regular-season games remaining.
But March was clearly on Marshall’s mind after the Zips struggled and still survived.
“They were making big shots and had 11 offensive rebounds in the first half,” said Marshall, who admitted how demoralizing the Flashes’ board dominance became. “We hit some adversity and now you have to push through it. That’s a huge thing when it comes March because you’re not always going to be blowing teams out.
“MAC championship time, semis, the NCAA for that matter, those games are close. You have to know how to play through adversity. I’m not going to say I’m glad, but I’m glad we were able to hit the adversity and play through it and go harder.”
UA is far from a finished product. Dambrot is not happy with the team’s field-goal shooting the past month, even though the Zips’ .467 percent coming in ranked second in the league (in all games) going into the weekend.
But Dambrot is trying to ride the fine line of knowing when not to rip into his Zips too harshly, especially when they’re giving effort. He faced that dilemma at halftime against the Flashes as they trailed 36-26. They had shot just 36.4 percent from the field and were outrebounded 26-20, 11-9 on the offensive glass.
Dambrot said there was a method to his lack of madness.
“I’m kind of a yeller and a screamer, but at halftime I didn’t yell at ’em a bit,” he said. “We tried, we just couldn’t make anything. There’s no sense in getting on guys who are already a little frazzled. I thought Kent played with unbelievable effort. They had some guys step up and shoot the ball well in that first half. There was no doubt in our mind we were going to win at halftime because we’d shot so poorly that we felt like we were fortunate to be down 10.”
Judging from junior forward Demetrius Treadwell’s reaction, the Zips might have been surprised by Dambrot’s halftime demeanor.
“Coach was cool, calm and collected for the first time,” Treadwell said. “It wasn’t that bad.”
The MAC regular-season and tournament titles won’t be a walkover for the Zips. Although Ohio lost coach John Groce, he was replaced by former Kent State coach Jim Christian. No one on Kent State’s side agreed, but the Flashes’ performance against the Zips might have been their coming-of-age moment. Wednesday’s trip to Bowling Green and Saturday’s home game against the Bobcats will provide stronger evidence if that was the case.
But UA won the league’s regular-season title last season against stronger competition. Two of its leaders, Abreu and Marshall, are NCAA Tournament-tested.
It almost seems as if the Zips are coasting, perhaps looking for a bigger carrot. At the start, even with an ESPNU audience watching, they were lethargic, perhaps knowing they defeated Kent State twice in 2011-12 in games that were mirror images of this one.
“When we first started, I’d come to these games knowing they were a little bit better than us,” said Dambrot, in his ninth season at UA, of Kent State. “They were better than we were, but we still had chances to win if we played a good game. With Zeke Marshall, our margin of error is a little bit bigger than them. They have to play a little bit better than us to win.”
That was not the case, and UA squeaked by. In the next two months, mustering all they could in the clutch against the Flashes might mean more to the Zips than it seemed on an ugly Saturday afternoon.