ATHENS, Ohio — Down by 18 points in the first half Wednesday night, the last thought on the mind of Akron coach Keith Dambrot was his team’s 18-game win streak.
Dambrot had a few things in mind, though, and once the Zips cut the lead to 11 at halftime, his message was neither complicated nor animated. Eventually it was delivered, and No. 24 Akron finally took down Ohio Wednesday night, 88-81 in overtime.
The streak reached 19 — it was already the nation’s longest — and Akron scored a win that’s significant and memorable on multiple fronts. The Zips won for the first time as a ranked team, became the first Mid-American Conference team ever to start league play with 13 straight wins and moved within one of essentially clinching the MAC title for the second straight year.
Akron did it the old-fashioned way, too. The Zips simply went inside to start every possession, jumped a little higher than the Bobcats did or could and used their height and strength advantages to gain an advantage. Despite Ohio sending the game to overtime on a tip-in and 7-footer Zeke Marshall fouling out in regulation, Akron (22-4, 13-0) stuck with its formula and powered its way to maybe its biggest win yet.
“We quit finessing,” Dambrot said. “We didn’t do anything but just throw it to our big guys.”
Akron turned the tables in the second half, got clutch shots from freshman Jake Kretzer and 15 or so dominant minutes from Marshall. That Demetrius Treadwell, Brian Walsh, Nick Harney and Alex Abreu are also on the list of guys who made game-changing plays for Akron says a lot about the Zips.
Perilously close to seeing that ranking disappear — probably forever — they stuck to the plan, relied on experience and finally shook an Ohio (20-7, 11-2) team that was playing for its regular-season life. There’s little reason to believe the MAC Tournament title game on March 16 will involve anyone but Akron and Ohio, and Dambrot and his players will then, again, have to try to find a way to keep Ohio point guard D.J. Cooper from getting 26 points then like he did Wednesday night.
But Akron overcame it Wednesday like this: Marshall had 16 points, 7 rebounds and 4 blocks. Treadwell finished with 21 points and 8 rebounds. Kretzer was perfect on 6 shots, getting 19 points in 24 minutes, and Abreu scored 16.
It was a wild game, one that went from 9-0, Akron, to 34-16, Ohio. Then the Zips needed just 4:30 to wipe out that 11-point halftime deficit. Then a Jon Smith tip-in sent a game that Akron really should have put away to overtime, the kind of overtime that gives coaches gray hair and leaves things to chance.
With Marshall having fouled out, Treadwell capitalized. It was his basket and foul with 2:20 left in overtime that essentially sealed it, and after a quiet first 25 minutes he was good enough, again, to make people believe the MAC Player of the Year race isn’t just between Marshall and Cooper.
This Akron team has a lot of size, a lot of weapons and some depth. Kretzer had a bit of a home-court advantage having grown up 45 minutes away and played in Ohio’s Convocation Center several times during high school, and it showed in the way he confidently shot it. The Zips are strong enough and deep enough to play part-street ball and part-street fight, and after getting outrebounded, 15-9, and outscored 11-2 off turnovers in the first half, Marshall came out of the locker room a different player.
“We got blocked about five straight times to start the second half,” Ohio coach Jim Christian said. “To beat them you have to rebound for 40 minutes, and this game went 45. We didn’t do it. They just out-toughed us down the stretch.”
Said Dambrot: “Zeke dominated the game. They couldn’t score over him and he scored at the other end.”
Akron has grown accustomed to rallying from slow and stale first halves, and it’s become accustomed to having multiple heroes. Those things bode well for what’s ahead, and though the Zips are far from perfect and far from having anything but a MAC regular-season title clinched, there are good vibes and good signs all around.
This is a talented team, one with a nice mix of maturity and power, poise and athleticism. It’s one that has the pieces and clearly has found a groove. Dambrot said this win bodes well for the future because it came in “one of the toughest environments I’ve ever coached in…when 11,000 people are there, call it whatever you want. That’s high-major.”
This series has been so good that Wednesday night’s win gives Akron a 6-5 edge in the last 11 games. Ohio has won the last two MAC Tournament title game meetings, going to the NCAA Tournament in 2010 and 2012.
“We’re better than we were last year,” Dambrot said. “There’s something a little bit different. Emotionally, we’re different.”
Said Treadwell: “The (ranking) number next to our name doesn’t mean anything. It means people are going to come out and try to beat us and stop this winning streak. We still feel like we’re underdogs. We haven’t accomplished what we want to yet.”