As the seconds ticked away, Chauncey Gilliam raised his arms in excitement toward the Akron crowd in anticipation of victory. After all they had endured, step one was finally complete.
Playing without their starting point guard, Gilliam scored 13 points and Demetrius Treadwell added a double-double for the second consecutive night as the Zips earned their third Mid-American Conference Tournament title in five years with a 65-46 drubbing of Ohio to avenge last year's title-game loss to the Bobcats and earn an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.
“It feels great,” said Zeke Marshall, the MAC Defensive of the Player who scored 10 points and grabbed nine rebounds. “We had a chip on our shoulder ever since.”
Treadwell was named the Tournament’s Most Valuable Player with 13 points and 10 rebounds, a night after going for 14 and 12 against Kent State, to help the Zips (26-6) sweep all three games from their bitter rivals.
“I’m just happy we won and we’re moving on to the NCAA tournament,” said Treadwell.
Reggie Keely was the only player in double figures for Ohio (24-9), finishing with 19 points. Walter Offutt chipped in nine points and a game-high 11 rebounds.
MAC Player of the Year D.J. Cooper was held without a field goal for just the second time in his illustrious career, finishing 0-of-8 from the field and scoring a season-low three points. Cooper came into the game averaging 20.3 points and 7.7 assists (six games) in Cleveland since scoring 23 in the 2010 Championship game vs. Akron.
“It was just one of those games, definitely unacceptable,” said Cooper who had six assists and five turnovers. “I apologize to my teammates…the ball didn’t fall how it usually does.”
"D.J. is such a great player, let's face it, when he doesn't play well it's hard for us to score," said Ohio coach Jim Christian.
After leading by three at the break, Ohio went ice-cold in the final 20 minutes, shooting a measly 18.5 percent (5-of-27) including 0-of-12 from long range. The Bobcats led the MAC in three-point makes (261) and were second in three-point percentage (35.7) coming into the game.
“It’s real disappointing,” said a melancholy Keely. “We came out here to win a championship. We came to cement our legacy and we couldn’t get it done.”
Ohio shot just 33.3 percent for the game in part because of its inability to break down the Akron defense. For the third time this season, the Zips primarily used the 6’7” Treadwell to guard the 5’11” Cooper and it again worked in the Zips' favor.
When Ohio ran its typical heavy dose of pick-n-roll, the seven-foot Marshall switched out onto the senior guard and kept him from driving into the lane.
“We matched up well enough that we could take away some of their strengths and our guys just showed tremendous toughness on the defensive end,” said Akron coach Keith Dambrot.
Despite the awful shooting performance, Ohio hung around and was down just six after a Cooper free throw with 7:49 remaining. But the Zips locked all windows and doors over the final seven minutes, using an 18-3 run to open up a 63-42 lead with two minutes remaining.
Ohio was held without a field goal from the 11:30 mark of the second half until the 1:37 mark, missing 10 straight shots during the stretch.
How far will Akron advance in the NCAA Tournament?
“It was a game of two halves,” said Christian. “We played hard, we just couldn’t make a shot. It’s unfortunate because we worked hard to get ourselves in this position.”
Like they did in the two regular-season matchups, Ohio jumped out to an early lead behind Keely. The senior forward scored Ohio’s first eight points, going right at Marshall for three layups before hitting a foul-line jumper.
He added a hook shot a minute later to spark a 10-0 Ohio run. Keely made his first five shots and scored 14 of Ohio’s 29 first-half points.
With Akron’s starting point guard Alex Abreu suspended from the team indefinitely, the Zips struggled to take care of the ball early on, and his absence was tangible during the 10-0 run by Ohio. The Zips committed four turnovers during the run, including three in a row from Nick Harney.
Offutt connected on Ohio’s only three of the game to put the Bobcats ahead 19-12, and they extended the lead to 25-16 with seven minutes left, thanks in part to eight points off the seven early turnovers by the Zips.
Akron, which led the MAC in offensive rebounding and total rebounding, began to attack the glass, grabbing six offensive rebounds, which led to five second-chance points as they climbed within a point with 35 seconds left in the half.
However, T.J. Hall’s driving layup rolled in at the halftime buzzer to restore a three-point Ohio lead. The Bobcats outscored the Zips 20-16 in the paint and shot 48.1 percent (13-27) from the floor in the half.
But it all came apart for Ohio in the second half.
Less than three minutes in, Treadwell was called for an over-the-back foul and slammed the floor with disgust, drawing a technical foul. Cooper made both technical free throws for his first two points of the game, but the sequence energized the Zips.
Moments after the incident, Treadwell gave Akron its first lead since the opening minutes of the game with a layup in traffic. Gilliam hit a wing three-pointer in transition, and Carmelo Betancourt stole Nick Kellogg’s wayward pass and scored a breakaway layup to give the Zips a 40-33 lead with 13:52 to play.
Akron outscored Ohio 14-4 to begin the second half as the Bobcats missed 11 of their first 12 second-half shots.
"I felt like it picked me up about four or five notches and it got our team cranked up, too," Treadwell said of his technical. "It got us all into the game."
In desperate need of a basket, Cooper finally found space in the lane and dished to Jon Smith for a layup to halt Akron’s run.
But the relentlessness of Treadwell and the Zips seemed to tire the Bobcats as the game wore on. Akron was quicker to loose balls on multiple occasions leading to extra possessions, which helped them pull away in the final eight minutes.
Cooper was called for a questionable charging foul on a fast-break layup attempt with Ohio down 42-37, then back-rimmed an open three near the top of the key and slapped his hands together in agony.
“We let our frustration and are inability to make shots or finish plays, affect the defensive end of the ball,” said Christian. "We didn't play the next play, we played the last play."
Hall airmailed an open three-pointer on Ohio’s next possession, which was indicative of Ohio’s second-half shooting woes.
The Zips then slowly began to pull away. Harney converted a three-point play to give the Zips their biggest lead of the game at 50-39 and Akron could sense the title after a beautiful reverse layup from Treadwell made it 56-42 with 4:40 to go.
From there, Akron coasted to victory.
Ohio is likely to continue postseason play and will learn what tournament they’ll play in on Sunday night.
“The NCAA Tournament was definitely the goal,” said Cooper when asked how the team would respond if its season was extended. “It’s a blessing to be out here to play ball, especially for us seniors. I’m going to cherish it regardless of wherever we’re playing in my last few games.”
Notes: Ohio is now 6-2 all-time in MAC Championship games…the Bobcats came into the evening having won 10 of their previous 11 MAC Tournament games...the 2013 All-MAC Tournament Team was announced after the game with Keely, Cooper, Treadwell, Marshall and Kent State's Chris Evans making the five-man squad...the crowd of 12,102 was the fifth largest crowd in MAC tournament history and fourth largest for a title game.
Marlowe Alter is a Contributor for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.