Very rarely does a game billed as one of the best matchups in conference history live up to the hype, but this game was everything and then some.
In a clash between the Mid-American Conference’s top two teams, it was No. 1 Akron who outlasted No. 2 Ohio 88-81 in overtime. The victory, all but wrapped up a second consecutive MAC regular season title for the Zips.
“It was a battle of attrition at the end,” said Akron coach Keith Dambrot. “Both teams were dead tired. The fans got their money’s worth tonight.”
The Zips (23-4, 13-0) extended their nation leading winning streak to 19 games, and became the first team in MAChistory to start 13-0 in conference play.
Akron overcame an 18-point first half deficit to beat Ohio (20-8, 11-2) ending the Bobcats 19-game conference home winning streak. In the process, the Zips also handed the Bobcats just their third home loss in their last 40 contests at the Convocation Center.
The Convocation Center held its second largest crowd of the season, with 11,109 frenzied spectators on hand to watch the Green and White.
“This was probably the hardest environment that I’ve ever coached in, very difficult, the fans were great,” said Dambrot.
Demetrius Treadwell led No. 24 Akron with 21 points and eight rebounds, while freshman Jake Kretzer came off the bench to score 16 of his career-high 19 points in the second half and overtime, shooting a perfect 6-of-6 from the field with five three-pointers. Center Zeke Marshall added 16 points, seven rebounds and four blocks for the Zips.
D.J. Cooper scored a season-high 26 points for Ohio, while Walter Offutt posted his first career double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds as the ‘Cats fell to 3-5 all-time at home against ranked opponents.
The Zips fought back from an 11-point halftime deficit and never trailed for the rest of the game, but were unable to put the Bobcats away, never leading by more than six points in regulation.
Akron held a 72-68 lead with under a minute to play, but Reggie Keely drew Marshall’s fifth foul and finished the baby hook shot to bring Ohio within two, with 47 seconds remaining. Keely missed the free throw, but after Treadwell missed a foul-line jumper, the Bobcats had a chance to once again tie the game.
Offutt missed a go-ahead three pointer from the left wing, but Jon Smith tipped in the miss with 0.7 seconds left sending the game into overtime.
Even without their star center, the Zips controlled the extra session, scoring eight of the first nine points. They out-muscled the Bobcats for three key offensive rebounds, one of which led to a three-point play from Treadwell with 2:17 to play giving Akron a six-point lead. The Bobcats never came closer than five points the rest of the way. The Zips made 10-of-13 free throws in overtime.
“To come back in this building, I can’t tell you how impressed I am with our guys to do that,” said Dambrot. “I think that was a terrific performance.”
Ohio head coach Jim Christian was proud of his team’s effort, but was disappointed in the final minutes.
“We showed great courage to get the game into overtime,” said Christian, “they just out-toughed us in the last three minutes of the game and that’s a little disappointing,”
Akron shot 50 percent in the second half and the extra-session, while Ohio mustered a meager 32.5 percent shooting performance over the same time frame.
“When we get them down like that we’ve just got to continue to get stops,” added Offutt. “I don’t think it falls too much on our offense. Sometimes shots are not going to go in, but you’ve just got to tough it out on defense.”
The Zips landed the first punch when Abreu quieted the rowdy Ohio fans with a three-pointer 10 seconds into the game, sparking a 9-0 lead just 2:16 into the game.
Ohio responded with nine points of its own, during which Cooper and Nick Harney were hit with double technicals after Cooper took exception to Harney’s foul on him at the top of the key.
With the game knotted at 13, Ohio went on a 21-3 tear capped by a monster dunk from Keely over Treadwell to give Ohio a 34-16 lead. Cooper, T.J. Hall and Travis Wilkins all scored five points during the run as the Bobcats held the Zips to just one field goal over seven plus minutes.
“I thought the first half, we played probably as well as we’ve played in a month,” said Christian.
But just as they overcame an early 13-point deficit in winning the season’s first matchup, the Zips battled back in the second half, bolting out of halftime with a 19-4 run in the first 6:05 to reclaim the lead. Marshall was a force on both ends, stuffing Keely at the rim, leading to Harney’s breakaway dunk, before erasing Hall’s layup attempt to set up Kretzer’s corner trey.
“He dominated the game,” said Dambrot of his seven-foot senior center. “They couldn’t score over the top of him and offensively he scored.”
Kretzer added another triple to give Akron its first lead since leading 11-9 early in the game.
Cooper picked up his 900th career assist, finding Smith for a layup to stop the bleeding before tying the game with a driving layup. Cooper, who had four assists on the night, now ranks 13th in NCAA history with 901 dimes.
Akron took a six-point lead on an alley-oop dunk from Marshall and it appeared as if they might pull away; however, Cooper would not let his team go down without a fight.
As he has done throughout his illustrious career, Ohio’s star guard brought the packed house to its feet with back-to-back threes to even the score at 63.
Cooper was 5-10 from beyond the arc and with 257 career triples, needs just two more to set the record for most three-pointers made in Ohio history. He also is 16 points shy of becoming the first player in NCAA basketball history to collect at least 2,000 points, 900 assists, 600 rebounds and 300 steals.
But Kretzer had the better night shooting the basketball, he hit his fourth triple of the half to put the Zips ahead 66-63 with 4:46 to play.
“I had a lot of family and friends from home here to watch the game,” said Kretzer, a Waverly, Ohio native who said he played about eight games in the Convo during his high school days. “I was used to the gym, used to the feel of it.”
After trading baskets, Ohio tied the game at 68 when Offutt connected from deep at the top of the key, setting up the final frantic minutes of regulation.
With three games remaining, Akron stands just one win away from winning the regular season conference title. Ohio can secure the two-seed in the MAC Tournament and a double bye into the tournament’s semifinals with a win or a Western Michigan loss.
The Zips and Bobcats will be heavily favored to face-off in the MAC Championship game for the third time in five years. The teams have traded wins in the finals the past four seasons, with Ohio getting the best of Akron in 2010 and 2012.
“It’s going to be a new game,” said Treadwell of a possible third matchup with Ohio. “The two games in the past have nothing to do with the game we’re playing that day. We got to come ready to play. It’s been a war every time we’ve played them and we’ve got to strap up and be ready for it.”
Ohio has some work to do before then and will look to bounce back against Bowling Green (12-16, 6-7) at noon on Saturday at the Stroh Center. Ohio won the teams’ first matchup 72-63 behind Keely’s 15 points and 10 rebounds.