CLEVELAND: The University of Akron used a stifling defense and methodical offense to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
The Zips (26-6) beat Ohio (24-9) for a third time this season, 65-46 in front of 12,102 fans at Quicken Loans Arena on Saturday night. It matched the largest margin of victory in the Mid-American Conference title game since the tournament moved to Cleveland.
Trailing 29-26 at halftime, the Zips came back to storm the Bobcats.
That they did so in such convincing fashion is impressive. That they did so without suspended point guard Alex Abreu might be considered a minor miracle.
“To do what we did under the circumstances, you can’t compare it,” UA coach Keith Dambrot said. “It’s just an unbelievable tribute to our players.”
Coming into the game, the Bobcats would have been perceived as having an advantage at point guard with MAC Player of the Year D.J. Cooper running the Ohio offense.
Demetrius Treadwell and Nick Harney erased any such advantage, smothering Cooper for the entire game. Cooper went 0-for-8, including 0-for-6 from behind the 3-point arc, with Treadwell and Harney guarding him.
“We just tried to tire him down for the second half because they’re not that deep,” said Harney (11 points, four rebounds). “We knew that, so we kept pressure on him. You see his shots didn’t fall in the second half and neither did [Nick] Kellogg’s. Keeping pressure on him all game was the key.”
Treadwell agreed: “We shut him down. We just tried to eliminate him from the game, putting bigger people, more size, and fortunately we got it done.”
The Bobcats and Cleveland native Reggie Keely (19 points to lead all scorers) had their own strategy in going right at UA senior center Zeke Marshall for much of the first half. The obvious goal was to get him into foul trouble. It didn’t work.
The Bobcats had some semblance of momentum going into the locker room at halftime, but it vanished in the second half as the Zips found a relentless defensive pace and held the Bobcats to 5-of-27 shooting. UA outscored Ohio 39-17 as Marshall adjusted to Keely and frustrated OU in the second half.
“They started missing shots,” point guard Carmelo Betancourt said. “They got desperate and we started playing really good defense. You could see it on their faces.”
The spark for the Zips’ second-half dominance came from an all-too-familiar individual — Treadwell, who won the award for tournament Most Valuable Player.
At the 17:37 mark of the second half, Treadwell was called for a technical after slapping the floor because of a foul call. A 13-4 Zips run followed, and the Bobcats never got closer than six points after that.
“Me personally, I felt it cranked me up about four or five notches and as I cranked up, the team did also. It got us all into the game,” Treadwell said.
Marshall, who made the all-tournament team along with Treadwell, said it was the best bit of coaching that Dambrot has done since his arrival at UA because of the position that his coach and the team were in in the last nine days.
For the Zips, the game proved to be a cathartic cap to a chaotic week and allows them to breathe a little before finding out whom they will face in the NCAA Tournament this evening. Marshall said he has one thing on his mind.
“I’m trying to win the NCAA Tournament to be honest,” he said. “I feel there’s nothing that can stop us. You see the adversity we had to hit a week ago with losing our starting point guard and we were still able to do what we needed to do to get our wins.”
The University of Akron will hold a selection show watch party beginning at 5 p.m. at Rhodes Arena. The show will be open to the public.
George M. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com. 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.