The University of Akron men’s basketball team has played 30 Top 25 opponents in its history.
Coming into their Tuesday night game against 25th-ranked Buffalo (21-3, 9-2 in Mid-American Conference), the Zips had lost them all. It remained the same, as gritty play early gave way to enough of a Bulls' scoring spurt to give them the momentum to leave the Zips 0-31 against ranked teams after a 76-70 loss at Rhodes Arena.
It didn’t come from lack of trying. UA (14-10, 6-5) trailed by 10 with 2:02 left but came within a possession of tying the game in the waning seconds.
A 3-pointer by UA forward Daniel Utomi with 15.9 seconds left gave the Zips some semblance of hope with the score 73-70. A quick foul sent the Bulls’ C.J. Massingburg to the line, where he missed on his second free-throw shot. An offensive rebound and put back by Buffalo’s Dontay Caruthers ended any chance the Zips had to win.
It wasn’t enough for Zips coach John Groce.
“We’re not going to applaud that,” he said of making the game close. “It’s what we should do. I thought we got what we deserved. Some guys need to get over their feelings.”
Loren Cristian Jackson led the Zips with 20 points. Guard Tyler Cheese followed with 16 points and six rebounds. He had six steals but also turned the ball over five times.
Buffalo’s Massinburg led all scorers with 21 points and four rebounds. He made 11-of-12 from the free-throw line, a spot where the Bulls lived for the evening.
Free throws proved to be the Zips' nemesis. The Bulls made 21-of-26 from the line. The Zips went to the line seven times, making four. Groce recognized the discrepancy, but declined to comment about it.
“I want to look at [the tape] before I have a comment on that,” he said.
The Bulls came into the game with the ninth-ranked offense in the country (85 points per game), but the Zips harassed them inside forcing them to shoot from the 3-point arc. That helped UA keep it close in the first half, trailing only 30-28 at halftime.
“They came out of the gate strong and hung in there and forced a lot of turnovers,” Bulls coach Nate Oats said. “It’s one of the best defenses we faced all year.”
The Bulls opened the second half with a 17-8 scoring spurt that gave them a 47-36 lead with 12:05 left. Given the way the Zips shot the rest of the way, and for the game, for that matter, it was all they needed.
The Bulls turned the tables in the second half, locking down on defense to force multiple shot-clock violations and create turnovers. The Zips actually won the overall battle statistically, committing 15 turnovers to 18 for the Bulls, but they came into the game averaging just over 10 per game. Couple that with the Bulls’ significant rebounding edge (38-29) and it created problems.
The Zips' most recent games against Top 25 teams came in 1987-88 against Pitt (No. 3); 1996-97 against Xavier (No. 19); 2001-02 against Western Kentucky (No. 20) and 2006-07 against Nevada (No. 20).
George M. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ByGeorgeThomas.