KENT: What seemed improbable at halftime turned inevitable at the 11:32 mark in the second half as the University of Akron completed a 22-2 run. The Zips turned a nine-point deficit into an 11-point lead en route to a 61-55 win over rival Kent State on Friday night at the M.A.C. Center.
The victory gave the Zips their first outright regular-season MAC title and the No. 1 seed for the Mid-American Conference Tournament.
How does a team lose after having control of a game in which their opponent couldn’t score inside, shoot from the outside and was giving the game away on turnovers?
That’s something the Golden Flashes will have to ponder, because they had the Zips right where they wanted them.
UA had other ideas.
Coming in on a two-game losing streak, the Zips (21-10, 13-3) mustered their defensive prowess to turn things around.
Coach Keith Dambrot preaches that defense leads to offense, and that proved true as the Zips opened the second half on a tear at both ends of the court.
After a terrible first half, the second half played out differently for UA. Guard Brian Walsh made a 3-pointer. Moments later, center Zeke Marshall scored on a layup and was fouled by the Golden Flashes’ Justin Manns. After completing the three-point play, the game’s momentum began to shift and the Zips’ points continued to accumulate.
“Basically what I said is that you have to play and trust your instincts,” Dambrot said when asked how he motivated his team at the break.
In the second half, the Zips played loose and free. After forcing the Zips to play a half-court game in the first half, KSU coach Rob Senderoff said it was as if they went on a jailbreak.
“It reminded me of the last time we played them,” he said. “They went on a run and we couldn’t respond.”
Zips players said that they might have been a bit tight coming into the game.
“[Coach] reminded us that we needed to play like we were the No. 1 team,” point guard Alex Abreu said, “not the other way around.”
Give Abreu credit for helping to spark the Zips. The way he settled his teammates down in the second half and how he ran the team contributed to how the Zips responded.
But Marshall’s offensive turnaround proved to be a key cog, as well.
Marshall scored 12 points, grabbed seven rebounds and blocked four shots. Ten of those points and three of the blocks came in the second half.
“What can you say about Zeke?” said Walsh, who also scored 12 points. “He just affects every shot down low. He really helped us on the offensive end.”
The win gave the Zips a season sweep of the Flashes for the first time since the 2006-07 season.
It was UA’s 500th win as a Division I program.
“There’s a lot of rivalry in this game,” senior UA forward Nikola Cvetinotiv said. “It is a special feeling.”
Dambrot agreed: “Winning here means a lot to me because they’ve been the best program in the MAC for years.”
But the Zips tempered their joy with the fact that Friday’s game was just one step along what they hope to be a long journey.
“You still have to go Cleveland,” Cvetinovic said. “In the grand scheme of things, this is a small prize.”
The bigger one — a trip to the NCAA Tournament — lies beyond the MAC Tournament, and it’s quite conceivable that the Golden Flashes will be waiting for them there. Kent State guard Michael Porrini virtually guaranteed it.
“We see them again on Friday,” he said. “We’re not going to lose three in a row [to them].”
KSU will play a quarterfinal game on Thursday ,with the winner playing Akron on Friday for a berth in the championship game.
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.