While Kent State and Akron might be the most well-known rivalry in the MAC, the Akron-Buffalo rivalry is still pretty strong. Akron is the closest school to Buffalo in proximity in the conference and the schools have a pretty healthy dislike for each other on the basketball court.
The Bulls have had pretty good teams over the past few years, but have never won when it mattered - in the MAC Tournament. Akron knocked out the Bulls in their only MAC Tournament Final appearance in 2009, and Buffalo's dislike for the Zips seems to come from Akron's continued success in the postseason.
When you throw two fiery coaches like Keith Dambrot and Bobby Hurley into the fray, the mini-rivarly can get a lot more heated. Many fans of other schools like to hate on Hurley for his temper, and Dambrot gets the same treatment. In a way they are the perfect match-up: two good head coaches, many really good players, and a matching of a hungry program against a proven winner.
Buffalo won the last match-up of these two teams on February 24. The Bulls held on for a slim 67-62 victory behind 25 points and 13 rebounds from Justin Moss. That game was the first for Akron without freshman point guard Noah Robotham, and coincidentally extended their losing streak to four games. Akron won the first contest of the year, a 75-72 squeaker on February 7.
Buffalo coming into the game on a six-game winning streak, but the week-long break between games seemed to bother them a little bit. Akron got out in front early but Buffalo eventually crawled back even at halftime. The second half was pretty even until late, when the Zips' tired legs finally caught up with them. After playing four games in five days, the drained Akron team couldn't keep up late and ultimately fell 68-59.
Bobby Hurley picked up a technical foul just three minutes into the game, which everyone not a Buffalo fan absolutely loved. No team could really get any separation until about the 15-minute mark, when an Akron 7-0 pushed their lead to 17-10. Buffalo's Rodell Wigginton stopped the bleeding with a three of his own on the next possession.
The Bulls were able to get back into the game and eventually take the lead with a 13-0 run punctuated by Xavier Ford's amazing put-back dunk that got the Buffalo crowd on their feet. Deji Ibitayo broke the Zips' scoring drought with a three of his own, but it wasn't enough to get the lead back which Buffalo still held at 28-26.
The next five minutes of play didn't feature much scoring (or much action at all), and Buffalo went into halftime with a 33-32 lead. Shannon Evans led the Bulls with nine points, and a hobbled Moss only notched one free throw in the scoring column. Jake Kretzer paced the Zips with ten points, six of them coming from beyond the arc. Pat Forsythe was perfect from the floor, going 3-3 and scoring six points.
Akron shot a very good 48 percent from the field in the first half, which is a little surprising seeing as they were playing their fourth game in five days. Buffalo shot well too, hitting 40 percent of their shots. The Bulls won the first half turnover battle 6-3, which helped them go into the locker room with the lead.
The most important part of the game is the first five minutes of the second half, and Buffalo dominated that. The Bulls opened the half scoring on their first three possessions and built a seven point lead. Hurley's team held that lead for awhile, as Akron's tired legs started to get to them.
The Zips started to make a run at the 12 minute mark. Down eight now, the Zips used a methodical strategy to go on an 8-0 run which allowed them to take the lead at 46-45. Akron was able to make that comeback at the free throw line, going a perfect 6-6 during that spurt.
Buffalo didn't help themselves at all. Awful shot selection and poor execution saw them go on a ten-minute scoring drought, with their only points coming from the free throw line. Akron couldn't capitalize on that advantage though, as Will Regan's three with 5:12 left ended the drought and actually put Buffalo up three.
That lead extended to seven on four straight from Wigginton, but Antino Jackson quickly answered the next time down with a three. That would be all Akron could muster, as the Bulls padded their lead at the free throw line, outscoring the Zips 12-7 over the last three minutes of the game to pull out the 68-59 victory.
Kretzer and Ibitayo were the only players in double figures for Akron, who just didn't have a go-to-guy down the stretch to make any kind of impact on the game. After a fantastic first half shooting performance, the Zips shot just 6-24 (25 percent) in the second half, including just 3-16 from beyond the arc.
Four players were in double figures for Buffalo including Ford (17), Shannon Evans (14), Wigginton (11) and Bearden (10). Moss was hampered by foul trouble and a bad ankle, and only finished with five points and four rebounds. While Buffalo shot just 2-13 from beyond the arc, the Bulls dominated Akron on the board 47-35.
Akron ends their season at 21-14, but a postseason berth might be in the cards. Dambrot said he would ask the players if the want to keep playing, but with all of the small injuries and empty gas tanks it's not likely the Zips will play again.
Buffalo moves on to the final, taking on a Central Michigan team that swept them during the regular season. The final game will be at 7 Eastern and will be televised on ESPN2.