After an incredible run in the MAC tournament last weekend, the Akron Zips headed out West to Portland, Oregon, for their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2013.
The Zips, installed as a 13.5 point underdog against PAC-12 foe UCLA, would ultimately suffer their defeat at the hands of the Bruins in a 57-53 defeat— and despite a double-double from Enrique Freeman and 18 points from Xavier Castaneda.
It was a slow start offensively, with the two teams combining to make only five of their first 20 field goal attempts. Buoyed by tough defense and some tough shot making by Xavier Castaneda, the Zips got off to an encouraging start, leading 11-10 at the under 12 media timeout. The Zips defense was the star during this stretch, with Akron’s pressure defense forcing four UCLA turnovers in the first nine minutes of the game. The Bruins averaged only nine turnovers per game on the season. A four-minute UCLA scoreless drought and a three-pointer from Gavin Clarke saw Akron extend their lead to six at 16-10, causing Bruins coach Mick Cronin to call a timeout in an attempt to settle his squad.
The teams continued to trade punches for the remainder of the first half, with neither team able to gain any meaningful separation. After a 3-for-15 start from the field, the UCLA offense started to find their rhythm, and yet the Zips continued to respond. Akron found themselves with a 20-19 lead at the under four media timeout behind five points each from Ali Ali and Garvin Clarke.
After a three-pointer from Jaime Jaquez, Jr. tied the game at 22, the teams continued to trade buckets as the first half clock wound down. Ali Ali’s runner after a forced defensive stop on the other end rimmed out as time expired in the first half, and Akron headed into the locker room with a 26-25 advantage.
It was as good of a first half as John Groce’s squad could have hoped for. The Zips held UCLA to 32 percent from the field while also winning the battle on the boards, out-rebounding the Bruins 18-17. Neither team played particularly well offensively, but six points each from Enrique Freeman and Xavier Castaneda was enough to pace the Zips and send them to the locker room with the advantage. Two fouls each on Freeman and Castaneda was cause for minor concern, but Akron still found themselves in great position at the break.
Enrique Freeman scored the first four points of the second half for the Zips, including an emphatic dunk over UCLA’s Cody Riley, but then quickly picked up his third foul with over 17 minutes left to go. With Freeman temporarily banished to the bench due to the foul trouble, it felt as if the Bruins had an opportunity to take control of the game.
Akron wouldn’t allow it.
In Freeman’s absence, Greg Tribble and Xavier Castaneda took control of the offense while the Zips defense continued to cause UCLA all kinds of problems. Back-to-back buckets by Castaneda moved him into double figures on the evening and gave the Zips a 36-32 lead with 14:30 to go in the contest. Castaneda was fantastic all evening, mixing tough mid-range jumpers with decisive drives to the rim and causing the Bruins defense fits for the entirety of the contest.
A three-pointer from Peyton Watson gave the Bruins their first lead of the second half with 12:30 to go, 37-36. It was short lived, as Enrique Freeman’s lay up on the other end promptly put the Zips back in front. Back-to-back three pointers from Castaneda and a subsequent and-one layup from Greg Tribble gave the Zips a 47-39 advantage at the under-eight media timeout, and it started to seem like maybe, just maybe, this Akron team had a little Cinderella magic in them.
A Jules Bernard three promptly cut the Zips lead back to five, but John Groce’s squad would not be deterred. A foul on Jalen Clark put Akron in the bonus with over six minutes to play, and Enrique Freeman’s free throws extended the Zips lead back to seven at 49-42.
The foul problems went both ways however, as Freeman picked up his fourth foul with 5:30 to go in the game and was forced to sit for a period. A Jules Bernard three pointer cut the Zips lead to four at 49-45, a tally that would hold until the under four media timeout.
A Johnny Juzang jumper out of the timeout cut the Zips lead to two, but Xavier Castaneda’s step back jumper on the ensuing possession put Akron back in front 51-47. A Tyger Campbell three brought UCLA back within one as we approached the two minute mark.
Then, the turning point: Enrique Freeman was called for an illegal screen with 2:26 to go, his fifth foul of the evening, sending him to the bench for good. UCLA took advantage quickly, with Tyger Campbell sinking two three-point shots in a row— one on a wide-open corner look when all nine other players were on the other side of the basket, and the other from the mid-court logo— were the catalysts for a 12-2 UCLA run which gave the Bruins a 55-51 lead with just over a minute to go.
A Garvin Clark put-back brought the Zips back within two with 40 seconds to play. The Zips got the stop they needed on the ensuing UCLA possession, but Ali Ali’s layup attempt in traffic at the other end was denied. UCLA’s Johnny Juzang made two free throws on the other end, giving the Bruins a 57-53 advantage with 4.3 seconds to go. That would prove to be the final tally.
Despite the end result, the Zips gave UCLA all they could handle. Defensively, Akron was fantastic, holding the Bruins to 35.2 percent from the field and 15 points below their season scoring average. Enrique Freeman was a force all night, turning in a double double with 14 points and 10 rebounds while making five of his six shots. Xavier Castaneda led all scorers with 18 point,s while also contributing six rebounds.
Tyger Campbell paced the UCLA offense with 16 points on 6-of-12 shooting, including two big buckets down the stretch that would help determine the final outcome.
Despite this disappointment, the future remains bright for Akron.
The Zips will return basically their entire roster next season, and one would think they will be the favorites to repeat as conference champions. Akron finishes the season 24-10 overall, while UCLA will advance to face St. Mary’s in the Round of 32 on Saturday.