Both the University of Akron and Kent State men’s basketball teams were into the spirit of the moment Friday night.
The jibber jabber started during pregame warmups.
Then it went to the Rhodes Arena court, where the intensity ramped up as the Zips rolled to a 72-53 Mid-American Conference win in the first of the two games between the rivals this season.
Zips point guard Loren Cristian Jackson led all scorers with 18 points and added three assists. He was followed by Tyler Cheese with 15 points and a game-high eight rebounds.
Antonio Williams led the Golden Flashes with 12 points and five rebounds.
The first half reflected the tension that inhabited the building as UA (14-9, 6-4) left the floor with a 31-30 lead that, statistically, they probably should not have had. But that’s what defense will do, as the Zips held the Golden Flashes (17-5, 6-4) to 37-percent shooting in the first half.
The Zips then used a 16-2 run to generate some breathing room. They nickel and dimed Kent State until a mini explosion of consecutive 3-point bombs by Loren Cristian Jackson with 9:04 to play gave them their biggest lead (50-39) to that point.
Jackson’s effort appeared to lift his teammates, who also drew energy from the crowd. Guard Jimond Ivey followed with his own 3-pointer, and it proved contagious as the Zips added another 3 moments later. By then they held a commanding 64-45 lead with 5:47 left in the game.
UA coach John Groce said it represented what he envisioned for this team this season — strong defense with plenty of shooting to on offense and it represented one of their best efforts of the season. For whatever reason the shooting hasn’t been there and it may provide the Zips a spark on that area.
“Ultimately confidence comes from success in games,” he said paraphrasing former NBA player and CBS color analyst Clark Kellogg. “I’m hoping that we can use it as a trampoline.”
However, offense doesn’t tell the entire story for the Zips, who shot 46 percent from the floor while showing some of the explosion coach John Groce has sought and expected all season.
UA lives to play defense, and that showed as the Zips bottled up Kent State in the second period. They did so by limiting guard Jaylin Walker, the conference’s leading, who struggled to find any rhythm offensively. Walker connected on 4-of-19 shots, including 0-for-10 from deep as the Zips harassed him and the rest of the Flashes all night.
“I think he just struggled tonight,” Kent State coach Rob Senderoff said of Walker’s performance. “You have to ask them what they did. I don’t know what they did except guard him, but a lot of teams have guarded him and he’s played better.”
If there was some secret recipe for what the Zips did to contain Walker, Groce wasn’t sharing it.
“He missed some shots he would have normally made tonight,” Groce said. “We were fortunate.”
They held the Golden Flashes to 20-of-61 shooting (33 percent), including 4-of-25 (16 percent) from deep. As a team, Kent State normally shoot 36 percent from behind the arc.
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ByGeorgeThomas.