Men’s basketball survives against Eastern Michigan, 65-63

The University of Akron men’s basketball head coach Keith Dambrot summed it up perfectly in the post-game press conference.  “I mean, we had our moments where we weren’t very good, but I have belief in my guys,” Dambrot said.

How right he was, but the team showed why they deserve the coach’s confidence in them as they came from 12 points down with just over eight minutes to go to beat Eastern Michigan, 65-63, in the quarterfinal round of the Mid-American Conference Tournament at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.

Reggie McAdams led the Zips with 20 points and Isaiah “Big Dog” Johnson added 19 more to go along with his 16 rebounds.

Akron (25-7) held a brief lead a 3-2 after a McAdams triple that opened their scoring, but played from behind most of the rest of the first half.

Eastern Michigan used an early 7-0 run to take control of the game as Akron had trouble shooting the ball. At one point in the first half, the Zips were shooting 10 percent – 1 for 10 – from three point range.

After finding themselves down as many as six, Akron still fought to end the shooting slump and finally tied the score at 18 with just over six minutes remaining.

A Johnson layup gave the Zips a brief lead at 24-23 with 4:16 left before intermission, but he was the opening act as it became the McAdams show the rest of the half.

A trey by McAdams put Akron up again at 27-25 (3:39 left), then he was fouled attempting another triple and converted all three tosses from the charity stripe to make it 30-28 (2:30 left), and then a four-point play to help the Zips regain the lead at 34-32 (1 minute left).

Josh Williams split a pair of free throws to provide the half-time score of 35-32 Akron despite shooting just 36.7 percent from the field, including just 5 of 18 from downtown.

The second half started the same way as the first as Akron could not buy a basket and Eastern Michigan being able to do most of they wanted to.

“They do a good job of getting out, extending the floor, taking away passing lanes and it was kind of an inside out game and I mean tremendous effort by their part,” McAdams said.

The Eagles started the half on a 16-3 run in the first six and a half minutes to hold a 48-38 lead on a variety of layups and three pointers prompting Akron to call a timeout.

Out of the timeout, Johnson was able to bring the Zips to within six after hitting a couple of short shots, but Akron began to miss shots again and eventually found themselves down 12 at 56-44 with just 8:46 remaining in the game.

Coach Dambrot immediately called a timeout to try and figure out a way to jump start his offense. The team responded with a 9-0 run that included back-to-back treys from Antino Jackson and McAdams to cut the deficit to 3.

“Look, I’m 57 years old, do you think I remember what I told them?  Basically, the whole time I just challenged their ability to fight through adversity and then try to keep them calm,” Dambrot said when asked if he had words of wisdom for his team.

While the Eagles pushed the lead back to five after a timeout, the Zips did not give up. A free throw by “Big Dog” and another triple from Jackson brought the Zips within one at 58-57 with 3:16 remaining.

EMU’s Raven Lee put his team back up by four after draining a three pointer seconds later.

A pair of free throws from Noah Robotham allowed the Zips to get within two once again at the 2:41 mark, but it was his trey with 53 ticks left on the clock that gave Akron a 62-61 lead.

Robotham’s shot came after two other missed shots from downtown by Akron but hustle on the boards gave Noah the chance to covert the third try of the possession.

Lee connected on a couple of free throws after a foul with 42 seconds left to give EMU the lead at 63-62, but Johnson was able to get inside and lay the ball in with 26 seconds to go and a one point Akron lead.

EMU had a chance but Lee missed a layup with nine seconds remaining, Johnson grabbed the rebound and found Josh Williams down the court who missed a contested layup that was corralled by EMU’s Tim Bond who immediately called a timeout with .6 seconds left.

Problem was, EMU did not have any timeouts remaining. Robotham hit the technical free throw and left the Eagles with a desperation heave at the buzzer to end the game.

“There’s always some anxiety there but like I said, our chemistry’s so good, we come together, we pick each other up.  Coaches do a great job of encouraging us,” McAdams said when asked about how his team reacts to being down. “Any time we can drive off two 3s in a row and bring it back down to six for a two possession game, we have faith in one another, confidence in one another, that’s why we didn’t fold.”

With the win, Akron advances to take on Bowling Green in the semi-finals on Friday at 6:30 p.m.