CLEVELAND — It didn't take long Thursday for frustration to set in for the University of Akron.
UA junior forward Daniel Utomi notched his third foul with 9:14 in the first half, and the resulting free throws gave top-seeded Buffalo a 22-8 lead en route to an 82-46 demolition of the Zips in a Mid-American Conference Tournament quarterfinal game at Quicken Loans Arena.
The Bulls (29-3, 17-2) advanced to play Central Michigan, an 89-81 winner over Kent State in Thursday's second game, in a semifinal at 6:30 p.m. Friday.
With Buffalo playing tough man-on-man defense on the perimeter and the Zips (17-16, 8-11) without a big man to score inside, UA found scoring to be an exercise in near futility, turned the ball over regularly and fell into a 38-21 halftime hole.
“It was just a weird half for our players,” Zips coach John Groce said, “and I thought Buffalo’s players.”
Three key UA players — Utomi and fellow forwards Deng Riak and Emmanuel Olojakpoke — found themselves in early foul trouble and, even though the Bulls didn’t dazzle offensively, the Zips produced no answers for a defense that smothered them from the tip-off. Olojakpoke fouled out with 16:33 to play.
“I thought it really disrupted some of the rhythm,” Groce said of the tightly called game that resulted in officials calling 29 fouls in the first half and a total of 38. “I think if you’re a player it’s hard to figure that out during the course of the game.”
The second half was largely irrelevant as Buffalo ensured UA never found a sense of cohesion or rhythm.
The eighth-seeded Zips needed to minimize mistakes to have a chance at beating the first-seeded Bulls. Instead they maximized them — particularly in the first half. They were careless with the ball and were crushed 55-36 on the boards, including 12-5 on the offensive glass.
The Bulls came into the game leading the MAC in scoring margin and ranking third in defensive field goal percentage, and they only bolstered those rankings by holding UA to 24-percent shooting (14-of-59).
Point guard Loren Cristian Jackson led the Zips with 16 points and Utomi added 12.
“I thought they were really disruptive defensively and really got into passing lanes and really put pressure on the basketball,” Groce said of the Bulls.
Zips guard Channel Banks (three points, three rebounds) agreed.
“We weren’t moving, No. 1. Our offense was stagnant and we just couldn’t get a rhythm,” he said. “As far as making shots, our ball movement wasn’t good. We didn’t get that many open shots, so that was our struggle.”
Based on the Zips' recent success from deep, Bulls coach Nate Oats made guarding the perimeter a focus of his defense. He noticed UA's 17-of-32 shooting from deep in its 80-51 opening-round victory over Miami.
“I thought our guys did a pretty good job staying in front of the ball,” Oats said of his team's 3-point defense. “We made it a huge point of emphasis. I didn’t want them to get them off.”
Given the Zips' 4-of-23 shooting (17 percent) from deep, it clearly worked.
In fact, there wasn’t much Oats could complain about on the defensive end of the floor.
“I thought our defense was the best it’s been for 40 minutes all year,” he said.
Although Groce said he isn't satisfied with how the season ended, he gave his team credit for taking several steps over last year’s team. For the players, however, it’s a simpler situation.
“We've just got to be better,” Jackson said.
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ByGeorgeThomas.