For the past few seasons Akron and Ohio have been the class of the MAC, even meeting up in the MAC Tournament Championship three out of the past four seasons. Wednesday night the MAC East rivals renewed their epic postseason monologue, this time in a quarterfinals battle for the ages. After beating on each other for the better part of 40 minutes No. 4 Akron was able to pull away from a mentally fatigued No. 5 Ohio, winning 83-77.
Zips' seniors Demetrius Treadwell and Quincy Diggs led an all-out second-half assault that whittled away at the Bobcats poise until the 'Cats, who were playing in their third game in four days and coming off an exhausting second-round win over Miami, folded. The duo scored 20 apiece, 24 combined points in the second half, and Diggs added a game-high 11 rebounds.
The rivalry game, known for its intensity and competitiveness got off to a fantastic start. The two squads exploded onto the floor, trading blow-for-blow in a first few minutes of action that blazed by. Five minutes in and the game was a separated by just a single point, with seven different players scoring. Akron sophomore marksman and MAC Sixth Man of the Year Jake Kretzer entered the game in the middle of this whirlwind and promptly knocked down a three in his first game back since suffering a concussion against Buffalo on Feb. 19. But Kretzer didn't make another shot all night and what appeared at first to be a boost of adrenaline in the Akron offense gave way to a period of stagnation and lag.
For about three minutes leading up to the halfway point the teams went scoreless as they made each other work for opportunities. It was clear from that point on that whoever was able to hold off mental exhaustion the longest was going to win.
Ohio implemented a "hack-a-Tree" gameplan in the first half (and throughout most of the game) that was the difference maker midway through the first half. Treadwell, a notoriously mediocre free throw shooter, was exceptionally bad Thursday night in Cleveland. The Zips' big made just 2-of-7 in the first half, and finished making 5-of-13.
With Treadwell failing to convert the free buckets, the 'Cats offense stepped up at the under six minute mark, and took a commanding 10-minute lead a few minutes later thanks to some of the best ball movement any team has pulled off this season.
With Akron struggling to convert possessions (some turnover issues midway through the first half led to a lulling state on offense) Ohio was able to build up a 10-point lead late in the first half. But a combination of missed 3-pointers and fouls mixed with some clutch shooting from the Zips saw Akron cut Ohio's lead to just five, 38-33, at halftime.
Tony Campbell-Isaiah Johnson battle.
Akron carried that momentum into the second half as Diggs and Treadwell started to take over. Diggs, who ended the first half with a gorgeous 3-pointer from the corner just before the buzzer (his first and only field goal attempt of the first half) burst out on tear to start the second half, scoring five points in the first few minutes and starting to shift the momentum into the Zips court.
Of course Ohio, which has earned the nickname "Cardiac 'Cats" this season for its ability to survive early deficits and sloppy play and pull out narrow victories in the final minutes, wouldn't give up. With Nick Kellogg draining buckets from behind the arc the 'Cats were able to hold on to the lead for most of the second half, not giving it up until Diggs tied things at 54 all with a little more than five minutes to go.
Kellogg finished with a game-high 25 points, going 10-of-16 from the field and 4-of-6 from behind the arc.
By this point however Ohio had started to show signs of fatigues. The defensive efforts looked sluggish, and besides Kellogg, Ohio wasn't doing much on the offensive end. Carmelo Betancourt and Diggs pounced, attacking Ohio's guards and causing a series of turnovers in the final minutes of action which their team used to put the 'Cats away.
One such steal occurred at 2:12 mark when Diggs swiped the ball from Ndour at mid-court and dished it to Treadwell who exploded into the rim with a forceful two-handed slam that served as the exclamation point on the Zips final statement of the game. Ndour fouled out shortly after on a rather stupid play, finishing his night with a paltry 11 points and five rebounds, far down from his normal numbers.
The win gives Akron its 15th victory in its last 17 MAC Tournament games, and guarantees the Zips a spot in the MAC Tournament semifinals for ninth straight season. The Zips face No. 1 seed Western Michigan Friday night at 6:30 p.m.
After the tenacity the Zips showed in this win, WMU may be in serious danger.