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UB men's basketball puts defense first in MAC Tournament win against Akron

CLEVELAND – Jeremy Harris perched a blue hard hat, festooned with decals and various scrapes, atop the podium.

The guard on the University at Buffalo men’s basketball team probably was more proud of earning the construction hat than he was of his scoring efforts in an 82-46 win against No. 8 Akron in a MAC Tournament quarterfinal Thursday at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.

“I wear it as soon as I get it, but normally at home we put it on top of our lockers,” Harris said. “But we’re on the road, so I think I'm going to sleep with it tonight.”

Harris scored a game-high 23 points in the rout of the Zips, the third consecutive game in which he scored in double figures for the top-seeded Bulls.

UB (29-3) will face No. 5 Central Michigan, an 89-81 winner over No. 4 Kent State, in a 6:30 p.m. semifinal game Friday (CBSSN).

“My teammates did a good job of finding me early,” Harris said. “My first two baskets, my teammates led me to those baskets. I just found my spots tonight."

“I thank my team for believing in me all year," he added. "I've been struggling a little bit, and [UB coach Nate Oats] keeps calling my number, all game.”

The Bulls after each game award a hard hat to the player who earns the highest number of points for making plays that may not show up on the score sheet, such as diving for a loose ball, forcing the opponent into a shot-clock violation or drawing charges.

Harris and Nick Perkins were UB’s second-leading rebounders against the Zips with eight, behind C.J. Massinburg (nine). Oats added more context to Harris' performance.

“Taking charges, getting deflections, getting stops, and he’s pretty good on defense, and your offense tends to follow,” Oats said. “And I thought our defense was the best it was, all year, for 40 minutes.”

Quicken Loans Arena has been hospitable for Harris. He averaged 19.6 points and 8.3 rebounds in three tournament games last March on the Cleveland Cavaliers’ home court, including 27 points and 10 rebounds in a 89-74 quarterfinal win last year against Central Michigan.

“Jeremy always seems to find his game up here,” Oats said. “We call him Mr. March for a reason. He shows up down here. He’s great.”

Harris was one of five players to score in double figures for the Bulls, along with Jayvon Graves (13 points), Dontay Caruthers (12 points), Perkins (11 points) and Massinburg (10 points).

Akron (17-16) finished the game shooting 23.7 percent (14 for 59) from the floor, the eighth time this season the Zips have made less than 20 shots in a game. It also was the fewest number of shots the Zips have made in a game this season.

At one point, both Harris and Caruthers had more points than the Zips; each had nine points by the time the Bulls took a 28-8 lead with less than eight minutes left in the first half, and led 38-21 at halftime.

”They were disruptive today,” said Zips coach John Groce, who is 5-9 all-time against the Bulls, including 0-5 at Akron. “I thought they got in passing lanes, I thought they created a lot of that where we were stagnant, as he was talking about. And then obviously shot making, we're going to look at all of it like we always do in terms of how we can get better. Everybody has a part in it.”

Making matters worse for Akron was Daniel Utomi, its leading scorer and best presence in the paint, picking up his third foul, and Zips forward Emmanuel Olojakpoke being called for his fourth foul with 5:09 left in the half.

The Zips opened 3 for 5 from the floor in the first three minutes of the second half, but Olojakpoke fouled out at 3:22 of the second half. After Akron cut the lead to 43-29 on Jackson’s 3-pointer at 2:59, the Zips never got closer than 15 points the rest of the way.

“They don't foul that much, so that was not the plan, but once the whistles started blowing a lot and ours started being a little more spread out from theirs and they started picking up, Utomi with three and (Deng) Riak with three, Olojakpok with three. I'm like, let's go inside to (Perkins),” Oats said.

“Riak, he's an anchor for that defense. He makes that defense pretty good. It's hard to finish over him, he does a great job going vertical. So once we got Riak in foul trouble, we started going at them, once they got in foul trouble.”

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