The University of Akron men’s basketball team faced two choices Friday night at Rhodes Arena.
The Zips could beat their archrival, Kent State, claim the fourth seed in the Mid-American Conference Tournament and make their run as repeat champion that much easier.
Or they could allow the Golden Flashes to interfere with any future plans.
They chose the former. The Zips beat the Flashes 58-54 in front of a raucous crowd that vocalized its approval or lack thereof at every bit of action.
“It’s a big game for us because at least it gives us an easier way to win the tournament,” Zips coach Keith Dambrot said.
“Although I’m telling you, we felt like we could win the tournament playing five games.”
The victory ensures UA (20-11, 12-6 Mid-American Conference) a slot as the fourth seed in the tournament that begins at campus sites on Monday.
However, the Zips won’t have to play again until 6:30 p.m. Thursday, giving them an opportunity to rest and heal any wounds they have.
Judging from the physical play against KSU (16-15, 7-11), they might just need the rest. UA beat a scrappy, tough KSU team by riding forward Demetrius Treadwell’s 14 points and six rebounds and guard Deji Ibitayo, whose timely offense got his team back into the game in the second half.
The Flashes took a five-point halftime lead and eventually ran it to seven in the second half before the Zips awakened, courtesy of Ibitayo.
With the Zips trailing 37-32, Ibitayo, a junior, made his third of three 3-pointers in the game to cut the lead to two.
Moments later, he connected on a contested layup to tie the score.
“I just wanted to help my team,” Ibitayo said. “I get in the gym as much as possible in the morning, put up as many shots as I can and they’ve been working for me actually.”
Still, taking the game wasn’t easy.
With Treadwell on the bench, the Flashes produced a 6-0 run before he eventually returned.
Treadwell then went to work.
Held to two points in the first half by a KSU defense that collapsed on him every time he touched the ball, Treadwell overcame the attention to scored 12 second-half points.
His efforts contributed to a 12-0 run to put the Zips ahead 49-43 at the 7:10 mark.
KSU then clamped down and used a three-point play by forward Mark Henniger to cut the deficit back to three.
A Darren Goodson layup tied the score at 51-51 with 4:01 left in the game.
Then the Zips turned up their defense.
“The last game, they went on a run at the end of the game,” Treadwell said. “We just wanted to play hard the last five minutes of the game. The last five minutes we really wanted to buckle down on defense and get stops. That’s how you win basketball games.”
It’s that defense that won the game for the Zips. The Golden Flashes shot 32 percent for the game and 22 percent in the second half. They made just three 3-pointers.
“I’ll give them credit,” KSU coach Rob Senderoff said.
“They made a couple of plays down the stretch that won them the game. We had a couple of empty possessions that we probably could have scored on.”
One of those plays, a 3-point attempt by guard Devareaux Manley, would have given the Flashes a one-point lead.
It had a chance, but the ball clanked in and out, proving that sometimes it’s a matter of just how the ball bounces.
Such was the case when KSU defeated UA 60-57 earlier in the season on a last-second, banked-in 3-pointer by Goodson.
As back-breaking as that was, chances are the Zips will remember this one more.
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.