Zips lose heartbreaker to Buffalo, 64-61

The University of Akron men’s basketball team fell to the Buffalo Bulls, 64-61, on Saturday night in the Mid-American Conference Championship Game. The Zips are now unlikely to make the NCAA Tournament.

The Akron crowd was in the majority at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, and they were rowdy from the beginning, even starting chants 27 minutes before tip-off. A tip-off which Zips’ forward Kwan Cheatham Jr. won. Cheatham Jr. missed the game’s first shot, and Buffalo’s Lamonte Bearden came down and finished a transition layup to start the MAC Championship Game scoring. Akron would get on the board two possessions later, with a pair of Aaron Jackson free throws.

The Zips got off to a slow start offensively, missing their first five field goals. In fact, each starter missed one shot before Antino Jackson connected from deep 3:05 into the half to give the Zips their first made shot from the field and tie the game at five.

Buffalo went on to score the next seven points, finished by a Willie Conner 3-pointer. Akron came back to end the run with a very unusual possession. Jake Kretzer missed from deep, and McAdams attempted to tip it in. The attempt failed, but Isaiah “Big Dog” Johnson was on the other side for an easy tip-in of his own. Akron’s struggles continued, however, and they trailed Buffalo 14-7 after the second TV Timeout. At this point in the game the Zips were just 1-8 on 3-point attempts and were outrebounded 10-5.

Buffalo’s shots were falling early on. CJ Massinburg came out with a trey to extend the lead, but Cheatham Jr. came right back with one of his own. On the very next possession Massinburg made another contested 3-pointer, then followed it up with a pair of free throws. The Zips fought back hard, with back-to-back-to-back baskets. First, Johnson found Jimond Ivey for a wide open layup, and Johnson followed it up by finding his own way to the hoop. Finally, after a Noah Robotham steal, Antino Jackson buried a transition 3-pointer to cut the Buffalo lead to 24-17.

After a Conner layup, Akron’s leading scorer, Isaiah Johnson, came back with two straight post baskets. Robotham came back with a layup of his own to bring the Buffalo lead down to three. The Akron crowd got right back into the game, back to the deafening levels from the opening tip.

However, the Zips’ outside shooting continued to struggle, allowing Buffalo to push the lead back to six with another Massinburg 3-pointer. Johnson came right back to cut the lead to four, and force Buffalo coach Nate Oats to use a timeout and quiet the Akron faithful. With 3:13 left in the half, the Zips were just 3-13 from deep.

Several possessions later Cheatham Jr. came up with a huge block down low, with was followed up by a Josh Williams 3-pointer to cut the lead to one. It was the closest the game had been since the 3:05 mark of the first half. Massinburg followed with his fifth field goal, but Cheatham Jr. shot right back with a slam dunk that sent the Zips fans into a frenzy. After a pair of Buffalo free throws, Robotham missed a 3-pointer, but quickly stole the ball from Massinburg. Robotham then found Williams for a wide open 3-pointer with just ten seconds left, and the game went into halftime tied at 33.

Coach Keith Dambrot’s team ended the half on an impressive 23-11 run. In the half, Akron made just five out of 17 shots from deep. In contrast, Buffalo made five out of 12 treys. On the other hand, the Zips made eight out of 14 shots inside the 3-point arc, while the Bulls made only six of 18. Buffalo also dominated Akron on the boards, outrebounding them 23-14 in the first half.

CJ Massinburg led all players after one half with 15 points and three 3-pointers. Also for Buffalo, Willie Conner had seven points and Lamonte Bearden finished with four points, and he led the team with six rebounds and three assists. Johnson led the Zips in four major categories with ten points, four rebounds, three assists, and five made field goals. Johnson only missed one shot in the first half. Also, Williams and Antino Jackson tallied six points, Cheatham Jr. had five points with one block, and Robotham had two points, two assists, and a game-high four steals.

Akron struggled to score early once again, as Buffalo went on a 10-2 run to give them a 43-35 lead. That forced Coach Dambrot to put Johnson back in the game with 15:21 left. Things didn’t change much early though, as Johnson missed his first shot, then Blake Hamilton converted a 3-point play. On the next Akron possession, Johnson committed a turnover and then a foul. CJ Massinburg then came right back with his fourth 3-pointer of the game to push the Buffalo lead to 14. Josh Williams ended the 14-0 run with his third 3-pointer of the ball game.

After a big defensive stop, Kretzer came back with a heavily contested 3-pointer to cut the lead to single digits. On the ensuing Buffalo possession the Zips showed their poor rebounding once again by allowing three straight offensive rebounds. They did, however, keep the Bulls from scoring on the trip. Several possession later Bulls’ big man Nick Perkins stepped out and hit a 3-pointer, but McAdams responded with a deep ball of his own, his first of the game.

On the next Bulls possession it looked like Conner had made another 3-pointer. But after review it showed that it was after the shot clock expired. Kretzer came back with a 3-pointer to cut the lead to five. After a Buffalo basket the Zips kept the shooting parade going as McAdams made another trey. McAdams came right back on the next trip and buried his third 3-pointer of the half to make the score 54-53, and put the Akron crowd on their feet as Buffalo used a timeout. Seven minutes and forty seconds remained in the Mid-American Conference Championship Game.

The Zips came right back on the offensive, as Cheatham Jr. found Johnson in the post, and he finessed his way to two points. The Zips had their first lead of the ball game. Bearden, Buffalo’s star sophomore guard, scored several possessions later to retake the lead by one. After a Cheatham Jr. turnover Bearden came right back with a transition layup that pushed the lead to three. Akron called a timeout with 3:39 remaining.

Johnson was stopped after the timeout, but senior leader Kretzer took a charge to give Akron the ball, and Antino Jackson hit a 3-pointer to tie it on the ensuing possession. Following a big Johnson block, Jackson made an NBA distance 3-pointer to give Akron their biggest lead of the game. After Buffalo attempted the same but missed, the Bulls got their own rebound once again. Blake Hamilton made the Zips pay with a deep shot to tie the game right back at 61 with 1:36 left.

After a Buffalo timeout, the Zips lost the ball in a jump ball, with possession going to Buffalo with 1:12 left. That’s when Antino Jackson stepped up big by drawing a charging foul. However, Johnson couldn’t convert, and Buffalo took over. The Bulls advanced the ball to half court and called a timeout with 29.1 seconds on the game clock and 17 seconds to shoot.

The Bulls went to Bearden, and he was fouled by Jackson, but luckily they had fouls to give. It did, however, erase the shot clock. Then with 1.8 seconds left, junior Blake Hamilton stuck the dagger into the Zips season with a 3-pointer on an assist from Perkins. After video review, the officials put .2 seconds on the clock, giving Akron two full seconds to shoot.

McAdams threw the ball inbounds, but his three-quarter court pass was intercepted by Hamilton, and the Buffalo celebration was underway.

CJ Massinburg led all players with 18 points. Massinburg made four of six 3-pointers, and he also grabbed seven rebounds and forced two steals. Blake Hamilton contributed a double-double for Buffalo with 14 points and 11 rebounds, and he made three 3-pointers. Finally, Lamonte Bearden scored 11 points, grabbed nine rebounds, and dished out six assists.

Akron was led by Antino Jackson, who scored 14 points and made four 3-pointers on seven attempts. Big man Isaiah Johnson figured in for 12 points, six rebounds, five assists, and two blocks. Johnson made just one of five shots in the second half. Freshman Josh Williams made three 3-pointers for a total of nine points. Finally, Kwan Cheatham Jr. scored five points and added five rebounds while Noah Robotham added two points, three rebounds, four assists, and five steals.

It was a sad ending for two seniors that have played so well for the Zips for the past four seasons, but they both played very well. Reggie McAdams went 3-5 from deep for a total of nine points and four rebounds, while Jake Kretzer shot 2-6 from beyond the arc for six points. We expect some form of postseason play for the Zips, but these two certainly earned another run at the Final Four.

In the end the Zips shot 13-33 from deep, but the game was decided by rebounding. Akron was outrebounded 43-31, and they allowed Buffalo to grab 13 offensive rebounds.