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Bulls pop Zips for first-ever win over ranked opponent

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

The beauty of college basketball—especially as February slides into March—is that unexpected results become the norm. Records, rankings and statistics mean less in determining outcomes, as they’re overshadowed by team-wide traits of leadership, resolve and experience. There’s almost no sense in predictions.

Entering tonight’s contest against Akron, the University at Buffalo—on paper, at least—didn’t stand a chance. Keith Dambrot’s Zips boasted the longest win-streak in the nation, churning out 19 straight, including all 12 Mid-American Conference games this season. Even before they came back to beat the Ohio Bobcats on Tuesday, the Zips were ranked in the USA Today Coaches’ Top 25 Poll for the first time all season.

The Bulls didn’t play like an underdog on their home floor. With an attitude of calm assurance and unsatiated hunger, UB pummeled Akron 81-67 behind Javon McCrea’s game-high 26 points. Reggie Witherspoon’s club improves to 7-7 overall in the MAC with a home tilt against Ohio approaching on Tuesday.

“We looked at this game like they were just Akron, not the 24th team in the country,” senior guard Tony Watson II explained. “We knew what we did the first time [a 68-64 loss where UB blew a 20-point lead], and we felt like we gave them that game. We had something to prove not only to ourselves but also to the rest of the conference. That fueled our enthusiasm and energy, especially on defense.”

Witherspoon echoed Watson’s sentiments in describing his coaching approach to hosting Akron.

“I tried not to talk a whole lot about the last game [an overtime loss to Kent State], [Akron’s] win streak or their national ranking, but I think the success we had in their building—we had some, we didn’t win the game—helped our guys reach another level of determination.”

The highly-anticipated individual match-up was between McCrea, a 6’6, 250-pound forward, and Akron’s 7-footer Zeke Marshall, who ranks fifth in the country in blocks per game (3.56). A more cerebral player than he’s given credit for, McCrea altered his game to exploit Marshall’s weaknesses—and thrived as a result.

“I knew I wasn’t going to score a lot of post-up buckets, so I wanted to score a lot from the top of the key,” McCrea explained. “I know Zeke’s 7-foot, so it’s going to be real hard to get a hook shot over him, so I wanted to use my jump shot and my ability to get to the basket tonight.”

“Before the game I told Javon to dominate,” Watson added. “I told him he’s the best post [player] in the conference, and he needed to put that on display tonight. I think he really took that to heart because he was the most aggressive player on the floor and dominated.”

The star junior’s combination of strength and quickness—and ability to attack both sides of the rim—kept Marshall off-balance and left him without a win at Alumni Arena in his four-year career at Akron. Although Marshall’s 17 points, six rebounds, five blocks and three steals paced the Zips in every one of those categories (and far exceeded his previous averages of seven points, three rebounds and 1.3 blocks at Alumni), his head coach wasn’t impressed.

“I don’t think Marshall or Treadwell had their usual energy, and McCrea capitalized on it,” Dambrot said. “[UB] had a good plan—they played well.”

Although Dambrot noted that his Zips held McCrea to 11 points in the first meeting, LeBron’s former coach praised the effort of UB’s star.

“[McCrea] was really good tonight—he kicked our guys’ ass, really. He’s one of the best players in the league.”

UB opened the game with the hot hand, closing the first 20 minutes at a sizzling 52% overall (13-for-25) and 7-for-14 from beyond the arc.

Defensive attention paid to McCrea in the post allowed Watson to sink three treys and Will Regan and Jarryn Skeete to each connect on a pair. Ball movement was crisp, the offense was rarely stagnant and the Bulls carried a five-point lead into halftime at 37-32.

A Nick Harney lay-up gave Akron its lone lead of the second half at 44-43, but McCrea put the Bulls on his back and orchestrated a solo 8-2 run—which included three unusually deep jumpers—to ward off an Akron rally that was starting to become reminiscent of the first meeting.

This time, though, UB’s defense continued to contest Akron’s long-range shots—a point preached by Witherspoon—and the Zips mustered only 41% from the floor for the game and just 38% in the final 20 minutes. Dambrot’s club never closed within six after the U-8 media timeout.

“This is [an Akron] team that got down 20 at home to us—in a blink they were right back—then they got down 18 against Ohio, and in a couple blinks they were right back,” the Bulls’ head coach explained. “They’re not going to go away because they’re down—they’re going to come back at you harder, and we needed to raise our level of determination, and we did that.”

“[Our defenders] were determined enough to not panic and said, ‘well, you’re just going to have to keep making tough shots,’” Witherspoon continued. “We never got to the point where we were discouraged and [Akron] then got easy shots.”

Buffalo’s freshman point guard Jarryn Skeete complemented McCrea beautifully in the second stanza, showing poise beyond his years in calmly handling backcourt pressure and enduring all 40 minutes. His line of 18 points, six rebounds and five assists was exceptional, and he has the UB media salivating over his potential for the next three years.

An odd chain of events occurred with 4:41 left and UB leading 66-55. McCrea had just converted a layup off a dish from Skeete, and UB’s Auraum Nuiriankh was called for a technical foul for jawing at Akron’s Deji Ibitayo. The Zips’ sophomore didn’t back down, however, furthering the verbal clash until officials stepped in and removed both players from the game with off-setting double-technical fouls.

Without Nuiriankh available for the final five minutes, Raphell Thomas-Edwards entered cold off the bench to make three of four free-throws and reel in two important defensive boards. The Buffalo sophomore completed a practice yesterday for the first time in two weeks, and Witherspoon wasn’t even certain of his availability before the game.

Though terse and a little disgruntled in the press conference, Dambrot saw this as a blip on the radar for the overwhelming favorite in the Mid-American Conference Tournament.

“Duke loses at Miami, Butler gets killed at VCU—when you play good teams, that’s going to happen,” the Zips’ coach said.

In the end though, the night will be remembered as a monumental win for the University at Buffalo, a reminder that absolutely anything can happen in March.

“After we lost to Kent, we knew some team had to pay. We couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity than for it to be Akron in our building,” Watson concluded.

TAGGED: akron zips, javon mccrea, keith dambrot, reggie witherspoon, tony watson ii, ub bulls, university at buffalo, zeke marshall

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