CLEVELAND: It wasn’t just about keeping the dream of an NCAA Tournament berth alive.
The University of Akron’s 62-59 victory over Kent State on Friday night in the Mid-American Conference Tournament was more about healing.
The Zips played only their second game since point guard Alex Abreu was indefinitely suspended following his March 7 arrest on felony drug charges. The first time they took the court without their junior leader less than 24 hours after the arrest, they lost the regular-season finale at home to Kent State.
This time, by virtue of their regular-season MAC title and a bye into the tournament semifinals, they had a week to cope with the loss of Abreu.
But it wasn’t an easy week.
“I wasn’t right for five or six days,” UA coach Keith Dambrot said. “I’m still not right. But I can’t let that get in the way of winning basketball games. I owe it to our team.”
It was a tough, physical game characterized by UA junior forward Demetrius Treadwell diving into the photographers in the first minute for a loose ball and coming up with a crucial steal with a minute left and doing the splits. But the Zips managed to pull together and overcome their faults.
“I’ve never seen anything like what our guys did. I thought we were emotionally ruptured last week,” Dambrot said. “But I also knew we’ve been through a lot of battles together. But you could see it tonight even when we got smashed and it looked like we were going to not win, you saw our guys rev it up.”
Senior center Zeke Marshall revved it up with 18 points, 10 rebounds and seven blocked shots, getting 14, seven and five in the second half. Treadwell finished with 14 points, 12 rebounds and three steals. With freshman Carmelo Betancourt the only remaining point guard, junior forward Nick Harney helped at the position and ran the team in the final minutes, contributing 11 points and four assists with just three turnovers.
The victory sent the Zips (25-6) into tonight’s 6:30 championship game at Quicken Loans Arena against Ohio, which beat Western Michigan in Friday’s second semifinal game. The Zips went 2-0 against the Bobcats during the regular season, winning 86-72 at home on Feb. 2 and 88-81 at Athens on Feb. 27.
UA is one victory away from earning the MAC’s automatic bid into next week’s NCAA Tournament. On March 7, that didn’t seem possible. But Dambrot managed to come up with a way for the Zips to cope on the court and to heal off it.
“I’m not the most reserved human being when it comes to basketball,” Dambrot said. “But I knew going into this game I had to change my outer shell if we were going to win. I had give more valentines and give less whips. That’s what I tried to give, a little more love and a little less hatred.”
Even with the good vibes, it was a struggle.
“It’s much different than losing a guy to an injury,” Dambrot said. “We talk a lot about brotherhood with our guys. It’s one of our terms. We lost a brother. It’s no different than losing a loved one to death. It’s no different than having a family member beaten up and hurt badly. It’s hard, it’s hard if you care about people. That’s why we win, we care about each other.”
Marshall said through it all, the Zips tried to concentrate on their ultimate goal.
“The healing process has been hard,” Marshall said. “That was a player we care about, a family member, and it hit us hard. But ultimately we still have a job to do, that’s to get to the NCAA Tournament and win. Despite how we felt, we had to push it aside and look at that greater goal that we have.”
Those who know Dambrot thought he would find a way, would make the adjustments. But the Zips had to make up for the loss of a player who had appeared in 96 games with 74 starts. Even Dambrot might have been surprised how it turned out Friday night.
“I am surprised at times,” he said. “But I know it’s one of the best teams we’ve ever had as far as toughness. To go 30 games and have to change gears is a tribute to how good they really are. It’s a tribute to the depth of our program that we competed at a high level.
“It’s going to be a struggle with the way our team is conformed right now. We’re not going to win if different guys don’t step up. It’s a big hole.”
But facing an inspired Kent State team, the Zips stepped up and prevailed despite making just 13-of-29 from the free-throw line and committing 17 turnovers.
“I’ll use a quote our coach says a lot, ‘When you do it the right way, the basketball gods are going to show favor to you,’ ” Marshall said. “I believe that’s what happened.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.