Zips win MAC regular season, set sights ahead
KENT, Ohio -- The Akron Zips are Mid-American Conference champions, but not the kind that really counts.
Akron overcame a late-season rut -- and a nightmare of a first half Friday night -- to win the MAC regular season title, but the Zips still have to win the MAC tournament next weekend to reach their true goal of the NCAA tournament.
The Zips gave new meaning to the term "getaway game" in their 61-55 win at Kent State on Friday, burying the demons of their worst week in months and then boarding the bus for the 14-mile ride back to their own campus to cut down the nets.
Akron has won more than 20 games in seven straight seasons under coach Keith Dambrot, but never before won an outright regular season MAC title, which brings an automatic NIT bid. Its sights are set on getting back to the Big Dance, though, and the only way to do that will be to win next two games next weekend.
"To win this game tonight here means a lot to me because Kent has been the best program in the MAC for many, many years," Dambrot said. "We're getting there. ... Now it comes to next week. That's the shame of this league. It's about who's playing well next weekend."
The Zips have won two MAC tournaments in the last three years -- Dambrot calls that the "big prize" and this the first "little prize" -- and will have to win next week in Cleveland to go back to the NCAA tournament. But the new conference tourney format puts the top two finishers through to Friday's semifinals, meaning the Zips can take more than a couple hours to relish Friday night's victory before getting back to work.
"We still have to go to Cleveland," Akron senior forward Nikola Cvetinovic said. "We're going to celebrate this win, but tomorrow we'll start preparing for what's coming up.
"It all comes to this, to two games (in the conference tournament). We got the small prize. We want to go for the big prize, get one more (ring)."
For much of the conference season, Akron was not only in first place, but was a clear step ahead of the field. The Zips are the league's deepest team and probably the most athletic, and when they finally got some baskets out of their halfcourt offense Friday night it started to show.
In the first half, Akron shot 7 of 24, 0 of 7 on three-pointers, managed just two assists and committed 14 turnovers. Eight of the nine Akron players who saw action attempted a shot in the half; only Nick Harney (1-1) and Zeke Marshall (0-0) didn't miss.
"We got hit in the mouth, the gut, the back of the head," Dambrot said. "We had to respond. We had to put up or shut up."
Back-to-back threes from Brian Walsh and Chauncey Gilliam started the Zips on a 20-2 run that saw them erase a 27-18 halftime deficit and not only turn the tables, but turn the game into a sprint that was too fast for Kent, which missed 12 of its first 13 second-half shots. Emphatic dunks from Demetrius Treadwell and Marshall punctuated it.
"We were just rotten in the first half," Dambrot said. "We were so lucky we were only down nine."
Kent just couldn't score, and Akron finally found a groove. The Zips had been blown out at Ohio last Sunday and lost at home to Buffalo on Wednesday, going from a team that had clinched a share of the league title 10 days ago to a team teetering. So many Zips baskets this season have come off transition, and Akron suddenly started searching for an answer in the halfcourt.
But in the second half, point guard Alex Abreu started setting his team up, Akron got a little pace and Marshall started playing to his capabilities.
"Zeke is 7-foot tall with a 7-foot-5 wingspan," Dambrot said. "When he plays disciplined, it's hard for any human being to get it up over him."
Akron has depth and talent. It has a chance to win a game if it gets to the NCAA tournament, but it has to get there first. It will have to win two next weekend, and that's how it will be remembered.
Cutting down the nets in an empty gym Friday must have been fun. Cutting them down next Saturday would see them reach the goal they set in October.