Their performance in the last two games of Puerto Rico Tip-Off is enough to make fans wonder “what if.”
That’s because the University of Akron dominated its two opponents — UNC-Asheville and Penn State — on their way to a fifth-place finish in the eight-team tournament.
In their 85-60 win over the Nittany Lions, the Zips defense and offense worked seamlessly after falling behind by eight points early in the game. From then on, they left their Big Ten opponent breathing fumes as everything seemed to click.
Zeke Marshall led the way for the Zips with 17 points, seven rebounds and six blocks, setting the tournament record for blocks with 13 in three games.
Senior guard Brian Walsh and freshman Jake Kretzer each added 11 points in the win. Reserve point guard, Carmelo Betancourt, playing in front of a home crowd, added 10 points, three assists and three steals.
Guard D.J. Newbill led Penn State with 20 points and five assists.
The Zips went into the half trailing 36-32, an advantage the Zips quickly erased with an 8-3 run to open the second half. From that moment on, the Zips turned up the defensive pressure as they expanded that run to 29-7 to take a 61-43 lead with 11:59 left in the game.
“This was one of those games when we got things going and it just went from there. I was really pleased with the effort in the second half,” coach Keith Dambrot said. “Our pressure (trapping) defense caused them to turn the ball over and we took advantage of that.”
While Penn State shot better than 48 percent in the first half, they were nowhere near that in the second as the Zips held them to just 25 percent shooting.
That defense led to seven turnovers in the second half that led to easy baskets for the Zips’ offense, which at one point hit nine consecutive baskets.
Much of the defense came courtesy of Marshall’s efforts.
“Blocking shots is something that I just do. It comes pretty easy to me,” Marshall said. “I was glad to be able to get a few today that helped us get going.”
“This guy is one of the best players in the country defending the rim. People don’t realize how good he really is. His blocks in that sequence were an important part of those scoring bursts we had,” he said.
But there’s that “what if,” right? The Zips played without junior forwards Demetrius Treadwell and Nick Harney the first game and still took Oklahoma State into overtime. In that respect they legitimately had a shot at placing higher.
Dambrot said he wouldn’t bother himself with that.
“Considering the circumstances we played under, we played three solid games. We played hard every night; we just couldn’t have our full complement the first night,” he said. “Any game that we’ve lost we haven’t had our full complement. It’s good to get everybody back and in two or three weeks we should be a pretty good team.’’
They will have two weeks to integrate Treadwell and Harney into the team before they play Middle Tennessee at James A. Rhodes Arena Dec. 2.
“You can talk about Oklahoma State, Penn State and teams like that, but the next three are every bit as good as those teams,” Dambrot said. “We just have to get that practice time and really fine-tune ourselves. That’s going to be key for us.”
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.