It was a highly anticipated matchup between two undefeated MAC powerhouses, the first time in recent memory that two undefeated MAC teams met this late in the season.
And it lived up to the hype—sort of.
In their first meeting since last year’s classic MAC championship game, Akron (17-4, 8-0) exacted a bit of revenge with an 86-72 win over Ohio (15-6, 6-1) in front of a raucous sellout crowd of 5,770 at Rhodes Arena.
Led by point guard Alex Abreu and a powerful frontcourt duo, Akron bullied its way to a 13th straight victory, the longest winning streak in the nation.
The diminutive Abreu scored 21 points and added nine assists and 7'0" center Zeke Marshall and forward Demetrius Treadwell each contributed double-doubles. Marshall had 17 points and 12 rebounds while Treadwell added 15 points and 10 rebounds. The two helped the Zips pound Ohio on the glass 40-22.
The Bobcats knew containing Akron’s athletic and active big men on the boards would be their most difficult challenge, but they were unable to execute.
“I give them credit. When Treadwell and Marshall want the ball, they go get it, and unless you stop them, they’re going to get it a lot,” said Ohio coach Jim Christian. “You got to want it. The key is hunger. We didn’t want it bad enough tonight. We didn’t invent block outs over here. They’re not much bigger than us. Treadwell is 6'7", but he wants the ball and he goes and gets every one of them.”
It was a close, physical game throughout, but the Zips used a decisive 14-4 run to stretch a five-point lead to 15 with 4:29 remaining.
Akron shot 56.1 percent from the field (32-57) and outscored Ohio 40-28 in the paint.
“That’s what I call a team effort,” said Abreu, who was one of five Zips to score in double figures. “We kept moving the ball, nobody was trying to be a hero. We kept moving and moving until somebody was open. We executed our plays and we exploited mismatches. We prepared for this game and guys came up big.”
Nick Kellogg led Ohio with 15 points while D.J. Cooper chipped in 14 points and six assists.
The Bobcats came out of the gate swinging, using a 14-0 run to take an early 19-8 lead. They hit nine of their first 11 shots and scored nine points off of four Akron turnovers.
Ohio took its biggest lead on a Ricardo Johnson corner three for a 23-10 lead midway through the first half.
“We got off to a great start, shot the ball particularly well and were getting stops, and that led us to get out on our break,” said Christian.
But that’s when the Zips caught fire, scoring on eight straight possessions including a ferocious put-back dunk from Marshall to cut the Ohio lead to seven.
Three straight made jumpers cut the deficit to 29-26 before Abreu got hot. He scored eight points during a 12-3 Akron run to give the Zips a 38-35 lead.
“I thought Abreu was the difference in the game,” Christian said. “He controlled the tempo of the game. We wanted to keep him out of the lane, and we didn’t do that very well.”
Akron completed the 18-point first half turnaround when freshman Reggie McAdams sank a three-pointer from the wing with 30 seconds left to take a 41-36 halftime lead.
Akron scored on a ridiculous 14 of their final 17 first-half possessions and shot 18-29 (62.1 percent) in the opening 20 minutes.
“The last seven or eight minutes of the first half we didn’t get any stops,” said Christian bluntly.
Abreu and Marshall did not miss a shot, combining to hit on all nine field goal attempts for 20 points.
The second half was much more even-keeled with neither team scoring more than five points in a row until Akron took control with its final run.
Back-to-back threes from McAdams gave Akron its biggest lead at 59-50. McAdams scored in double figures for just the fourth time all season, hitting on three of his four three-point attempts.
Two free throws each from Reggie Keely and Cooper brought Ohio to within five, but Pat Forsythe converted a three-point play to ignite Akron’s 14-4 run. Marshall scored on a layup off a dish from Abreu, and Treadwell hammered home a dunk and hit a foul-line jumper to give the Zips nine straight points. Abreu answered a Cooper three with one of his own and made two free throws to give the Zips their largest lead of the night at 73-58.
During the run, the Bobcats seemed to rush their offense, taking contested shots early in the shot clock in an effort to combat the Zips’ scorching shooting.
But Ohio would not go away, continuing to attack the Zips’ interior defense to get to the line time and time again. Ohio was 21-of-29 from the charity stripe.
T.J. Hall, who scored a season-high 12 points off the bench, hit back-to-back threes to bring Ohio to within eight with 2:18 remaining, but the Zips made their free throws down the stretch to close the game.
Ohio shot just 32.3 percent (10-31) in the second half and 40.7 percent overall.
Cooper, Ohio’s leading scorer at 14.6 points per game, was just 3-of-10 from the field and 1-of-5 from beyond the arc. Akron employed a strategy it used in last year’s MAC Championship game, using 6'7" forwards Nick Harney and Treadwell to guard Cooper for a majority of the second half.
“We switched gears at halftime,” said Akron coach Keith Dambrot. “Abreu guarded him in the first half and we gave ball-screen help and they caught us in between rotations. The second half we switched the ball screens so we put the bigger guy on Cooper. It was a calculated risk.”
Although frustrated, Christian said he wouldn’t overreact to the disappointing loss.
“I don’t put too much stock in any one game. This is a long race, we’re seven games in (out of 16 conference games).”
Added Kellogg, “We just got to clean things up and get onto the next one.”
The two teams will meet again at the Convocation Center in Athens on February 27.
As for the immediate future, the Bobcats will look to climb back on track when they visit Ball State (8-12, 2-6) on Wednesday night for their fourth straight road game.
Notes: Cooper passed Grayson Marshall (Clemson, 1984-88) for 19th on the all-time Division I assists list and now has 861…Ohio’s Ivo Baltic was held scoreless for the second consecutive game. The senior forward, who came into the game averaging 8.7 points, attempted just one shot in 22 minutes.
Marlowe Alter is a Contributor for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.