As far as University of Akron men’s basketball coach Keith Dambrot was concerned, rebounding was the key to beating Northern Illinois Tuesday night at Rhodes Arena.

Considering the Huskies lead the Mid-American Conference in rebounding margin, he knew that task would be daunting.

But, as it turned out, Dambrot was wrong on that count — NIU (16-4, 5-2) won the battle of the boards 32-29 but still fell 76-66 to the Zips.

A little extra motivation pushed the Zips over the top.

When an official’s call sent Isaiah “Big Dog” Johnson to the bench with his fourth foul with 13:31 to play, it raised the ire of the JAR crowd, Dambrot — who drew a technical foul — and the collective pulse of the Zips (16-4, 5-2 in MAC).

Another key was the play of Kwan Cheatham Jr., who has struggled of late but broke out of his doldrums to connect on four 3-pointers en route to a team-high 18 points to go along with five rebounds.

Antino Jackson and Johnson added 13 points each, with Johnson contributing five rebounds and Jackson three assists.

Although the Zips narrowly outshot the Huskies overall (43 percent to 41 percent), they set a blistering pace in the second half when they connected on 52 percent from the floor, including 7-of-16 on 3-pointers.

In addition, the Zips forced 15 turnovers and scored 16 points off of them.

More notably, they kept the Huskies out of the paint, giving up just 24 points inside. They also had seven steals and six block shots — three from Cheatham.

Given his previous struggles, it was a game Cheatham needed. Dambrot told him to worry about the defense and the offense would come, he said, while also crediting extra work in the gym for his rebound.

“Just seeing the ball going in makes a big difference,” he said.

Dambrot said Cheatham, who connected on all five of his shots from the floor, had earned his backing.

“He stayed with it,” Dambrot said. “I have tremendous belief in Kwan. He has equity in the program.”

Both teams faced some challenges in a game closely called by the officials, which was noted by Dambrot and NIU coach Mark Montgomery.

Montgomery acknowledged Dambrot’s technical foul seemed to spark the Zips.

Dambrot said he just did what he needed to do.

“I did what I had to do to get the crowd in the game, make sure our guys were fired up and understood the importance of it,” he said. “And I deserved the technical foul I got and probably could have gotten another one.”

It had its intended effect.

The Zips went on an immediate 6-0 run and outscored the Huskies 37-29 the rest of the game.

George M. Thomas can be reached at gmthomas@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the Zips blog at www.ohio.com/zips. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ.