For the University of Akron Zips, all the meaningless perks have been stripped away.
The nation’s best, 19-game winning streak? Gone, thanks to an uninspired performance in Saturday’s loss at Buffalo.
A chance to move into the Associated Press Top 25? See paragraph two.
If the Zips and coach Keith Dambrot needed validation for their hard work and basketball program-building, they enjoyed two weeks of unadulterated praise.
But the streak, while nice for national publicity, brought unneeded pressure. It wasn’t what really mattered.
The Zips’ goal all along has been to get into the NCAA Tournament and prove themselves on the national stage. To convince doubters, apparently unswayed by Ohio’s Sweet 16 appearance last season, that UA and the Mid-American Conference deserve respect.
They took the next step Tuesday night, wrapping up their second consecutive MAC regular-season title, becoming just the league’s third team in the past 30 years to achieve that feat. They even got the chance to cut down the nets.
But those who came to Rhodes Arena expecting to see the Zips refreshed and ready to make a statement against Miami University had to wait for a while in UA’s 72-58 victory.
Refreshed, that might have to wait until next week.
“Going into the game I was concerned,” Dambrot said afterward. “I thought emotionally it was going to be difficult after getting our bubble burst.”
Dambrot said he spent a lot of time talking to close friend and former UA assistant Shaka Smart, the coach at Virginia Commonwealth. The Rams saw their 13-game winning streak snapped Jan. 24 at Richmond, then lost at home to LaSalle.
“He said, ‘It’s going to be a tough game for you. But in the long run, it’s going to help you,’ ” Dambrot said Smart told him.
In the first half, the Zips looked like the same tired bunch from Buffalo. Senior center Zeke Marshall rarely raised his arms on defense, which allowed Miami’s 6-foot-9 center Vince Legarza to win more than his share of battles with the 7-footer.
In the first half, the Zips’ dead legs resulted in 2-for-10 shooting from 3-point range. They found their base in the second half, making 6-of-14 from behind the arc, with freshman Reggie McAdams and junior Alex Abreu providing the spark.
They even missed a chance at a SportsCenter moment late in the second half when Abreu ran out of bounds and got caught among the photographers beside the UA basket. When he finally weaved his way back onto the court, he stole the ball from the RedHawks and passed to an open Demetrius Treadwell, who missed the layup.
If ever there was a team that looked like it needed its bye into the next week’s Mid-American Conference Tournament semifinals, it is the Zips. But first comes the regular-season finale Friday night against visiting Kent State, which will be shown on ESPN2.
Then perhaps, they can rest.
“The break before the tournament is going to help us,” Dambrot said. “We’ve pressed most of the year, so we’re a little bit dead-legged.”
UA is a victory over Kent State, which really means nothing except in terms of momentum and bragging rights, and two tournament triumphs away from making its third NCAA appearance in five years. But three more victories aren’t what Marshall wants.
“In the big picture, I want nine more wins,” Marshall said, referring to an NCAA title. “But we have to take every step slowly, take every step one at a time.”
There was a sense before the game that Saturday’s loss would be a wake-up call for the Zips, providing the focus they need for those steps.
“I think we were fairly focused,” Dambrot said of the performance against Miami. “But I do think when you tell your team their breath stinks and they’ve won 19 games in a row, sometimes they don’t think [it does]. When you lose a game, now all of a sudden the dentist telling them their breath stinks hits home a little more.”
Dambrot has always been a supporter of UA’s athletic teams. He knows that the key to the men’s soccer team’s national championship in 2010 was Cleveland State’s October upset of UA. Then-coach Caleb Porter thought that setback was what the Zips needed going into the postseason. That turned out to be the Zips’ only loss.
The bubble-bursting at Buffalo could serve the basketball Zips in the same fashion. They had become content to fall behind, confident they would always rally. Saturday, they flipped the switch and there was no juice.
That might be the valuable lesson they needed for the month ahead. If they grasp it, the chance for March Magic is still alive.
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.