The University at Buffalo held up inside against a bigger University of Akron team Tuesday night but could not pull off the plays in the final minutes to score an upset.
Akron got the go-ahead basket from center Isaiah Johnson with 1:25 to play and held on for a 75-71 victory at Alumni Arena.
Akron broke the ninth and final tie of a tight game by perfectly executing a back-side screen for Johnson, a 6-foot-10, 295-pound junior. It was the first time Akron ran the play, and Johnson’s wide-open layup put Akron ahead, 70-68.
“We know what their pet plays are, and they know what our pet plays are, and we saved that one,” said Akron coach Keith Dambrot.
Akron’s Reggie McAdams screened Ikenna Smart, who was guarding Johnson. UB’s Blake Hamilton was guarding McAdams and was supposed to stay with Johnson until Smart could get back into position.
“I was guarding McAdams,” Hamilton said. “He was hitting a lot of threes, so I was trying to stay with him. But during the scout” practice session, “we were supposed to sit on Ikenna’s man and help. That was my mental error.”
Hamilton was called for traveling on the ensuing possession, and Akron ran another good play to get two free throws with 35 seconds left.
Records: It was the Mid-American Conference opener for both teams. Akron (12-2), the favorite in the MAC East, won its ninth straight. UB is 7-7.
Size edge: UB kept Akron from dominating inside thanks largely to a good defensive game from 6-10 freshman Smart. He fronted Johnson to prevent the ball from getting into the low post. Johnson finished with 14 points. But the rebounding was even, 39-39, and UB held a 34-28 scoring edge in the paint.
“They did a really good job of keeping it from getting there,” Dambrot said. “They’re really the first team all year that has played us that way.”
Bull scorers: UB got 16 points from Willie Conner, 15 from Hamilton and 12 from Lamonte Bearden. But Bearden had trouble kicking out for clear shots when he got in the lane. He had two assists and five turnovers.
Last shot: Conner missed a difficult three that would have tied it at 74 with 7 seconds left. UB coach Nate Oats wanted to get the ball to Jarryn Skeete and took the blame for the possession, which wasn’t smooth.
“The last play, that one’s on me,” he said. “I thought they’d try to foul us so we couldn’t get the three off.”
On point for Zips: Akron got a strong game from sophomore point guard Antino Jackson, who had 16 points, seven assists and no turnovers. His quickness allows him to create fast separation on step-back three-point shots.
“He’s a jet, now,” Dambrot said. “He’s one of the fastest guys I’ve ever coached.”
UB upside: If UB’s young big men can play as disciplined and tough as Tuesday, the Bulls have a chance to contend in the MAC. Smart stayed out of foul trouble, which has plagued him this year. Freshman Nick Perkins, who sat out the first half for disciplinary reasons, gave UB good minutes in the second half.
“I think we’re going to be right there at the end of the year,” Oats said. “You look at their roster, with all the seniors and returners they have. We’ve got three guys that played together here last year. So we’re still learning to play with each other. We’re 14 games in. We’re coming together. But I think you’re going to see us get better and better as the year goes on with our chemistry.”
In the house: Attendance at Alumni Arena was 2,226.
Road warriors: UB enters a tough stretch of its schedule. The Bulls play six of their next eight games on the road. It’s a challenge, but it’s not bad timing. Four of those road games are while UB’s students are on break. “I don’t think it’s the worst thing that we play on the road when the students are not here,” Oats said. “The student section has gotten really good here. They help us.”
Up next: UB visits Kent State Friday.