AUBURN HILLS, Mich.: One of University of Akron coach Keith Dambrot’s keys to the game was to recover quickly.
Before the NCAA South Regional showdown with Virginia Commonwealth Thursday night at The Palace at Auburn Hills, Dambrot said the Rams preyed on players who dwelled on the last play.
“The last play becomes the next play and then that last play becomes the next play and pretty soon they get a 12- or 14-point burst,” Dambrot warned. “So you have to recover quickly. You can’t worry about the last mistake.”
While he was referring to VCU’s lethal full-court press in what turned out to be a prescient prediction, he might as well have been talking about the challenges UA faced all season. Unfortunately for the Zips in an 88-42 loss, they couldn’t survive Alex Abreu’s last mistake.
They did everything they could to get past it, even calling on a sports psychologist that Dambrot believes saved their season. But Abreu’s unconscionable decision was too much to overcome.
Without Abreu, their junior point guard, indefinitely suspended after his March 7 arrest on felony drug trafficking charges, the Zips were overmatched against VCU. They committed 10 turnovers in the first half and finished with 22. The hot-shooting Rams got 34 points off those miscues.
“There was nothing we could do. We could game plan all we wanted. They had a strength and their strength was our weakness,” Dambrot said. “Even if you add Abreu, we probably don’t win, but it’s a heckuva lot better game.”
It was nothing like the matchup of the two teams Dec. 29, 2011, when the Zips had Abreu and Quincy Diggs, the 2011-12 Mid-American Conference sixth man of the year who was suspended in early October for a violation of the student code. On that night, VCU pulled out a one-point overtime victory at UA. It was an agonizing game for the coaches since VCU coach Shaka Smart spent 2003-06 as a UA assistant, but the Zips kept their poise in the face of the Rams’ “Havoc” pressure. It seemed like a step in the right direction for UA’s program, seeking the national notoriety VCU has achieved under Smart.
The Zips are still on that track, making their third NCAA appearance in the past five years. A bad night shouldn’t obscure that, one made worse when Brian Walsh and Pat Forsythe were stricken by flu. Walsh spent time in the hospital Wednesday night and didn’t get to bed until 7 a.m.; Forsythe apparently caught it from his roommate Walsh and needed an IV before the game. They were also without sophomore Deji Ibitayo, whose back flared up after practice. Another Zips’ asset, their depth, took a serious hit.
Recovering quickly just wasn’t possible.
The Abreu incident shouldn’t obscure all that was good about the Zips’ 26-7 season. They recorded the nation’s longest winning streak this season at 19 games. They made their seventh consecutive appearance in the Mid-American Conference championship, an active tournament streak that ranks second in the nation behind Gonzaga’s 16. They became just the third team in the past 30 years to win back-to-back MAC regular-season titles.
They did all that with a season full of adversity.
Besides Diggs’ suspension, they played without Demetrius Treadwell and Nick Harney for three games at the beginning of the season because of a compliance error. Senior Chauncey Gilliam tore his meniscus in a knee. Then came the Abreu shocker.
“Most teams around the country didn’t hit the haymakers we hit,” Dambrot said. “We’ve overcome it all year long. I had no reason to think we wouldn’t overcome it again tonight.”
But this seemed like the year when the Zips had a chance for their first postseason victory since 2008, when they defeated Florida State in the NIT. They needed that for the program to make the jump to the next level. Instead, March will be defined by Abreu’s suspension.
They recovered quickly to defeat Kent State and Ohio in the MAC Tournament, earning the league’s automatic berth. But even with a renewed sense that they must play for each other, an experienced point guard is critical for success in the NCAAs.
Dambrot worked miracles with freshman Carmelo Betancourt and forward-turned-backup point guard Nick Harney to get the Zips in. They were forced to reinvent themselves, and they did for a weekend.
But Dambrot and the Zips had no answers for the relentless Rams.
“It was just a miserable experience, but it’s going to make us better in the future,” Dambrot said. “Nothing to be embarrassed about, really. We had a helluva year and they’re good and they exploited our weakness better than anybody in the country could.
We put our kids in an unfair position, really. Under normal circumstances Betancourt probably plays five minutes. Harney’s never played point guard in his [UA] career.”
When it was pointed out he didn’t put his kids in an unfair position, Dambrot said, “The circumstances put them in an unfair position. If we’d played Wisconsin or someone who doesn’t force tempo, that doesn’t force pressure, we’d probably have a much better chance.
“But the good thing about it is it’s a good lesson for everybody. You can be on top one day and the next day because of circumstances you can get smacked in the mouth and you’d better find a way to pick yourself up.”
While he tried to get that message across, Dambrot will take no solace in being trounced by his protégé. He’ll probably chew out his best friend for running up the score to make a statement on the big stage. The loss Thursday could hurt Dambrot for days.
It might hurt his players even longer.
In the months ahead, they might not toss in bed thinking about VCU’s havoc or 22 turnovers on a bad night in Auburn Hills. They will think about “circumstances.” They will try to get over the anger that Abreu’s last mistake sabotaged their postseason.
When it comes to that kind of adversity, recovering quickly might be out of the question.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read 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.