By EVAN MEYER
AKRON, OHIO – Two of the top teams in the Mid-American Conference battled it out Tuesday night at Rhodes Arena. After 40 minutes of basketball, it was the home-standing Akron Zips who emerged victorious, 76-66, over the Northern Illinois Huskies before a boisterous crowd of 3,205.
Akron (16-4, 5-2 MAC) scored 20 of the game’s last 30 points over the last 5:10 to remain undefeated at home with a 10-0 mark and remained one game behind Kent State in the Eastern Division as the Golden Flashes defeated Eastern Michigan 73-58.
“I challenged our guys to make plays to win the game.” Zips head coach Keith Dambrot said. “We have to stay close to Kent State right now because . . .
UA had four players in double figures led by junior Kwan Cheatham who led all scorers in the game with 18 points hitting all five of his shots from the field, four of them coming from three-point range. He also added five rebounds two assists and three blocked shots.
Sophomore Antino Jackson and junior Isiah Johnson chipped in 13 points. Jackson added three assists and three steals, while Johnson contributed five boards, two assists a steal and a blocked shot. Fellow sophomore Noah Robotham had 11 points and four helpers.
Northern Illinois (16-4, 5-2) saw its modest two-game winning streak come to an end, but nonetheless remained in first place in the Western Division as Ball State fell at Buffalo, 76-64.
“That was a hard fought game.” Huskies head man Mark Montgomery said. “When crunch time came, Akron hit two big threes. I thought that was the difference. Give credit to Akron, they made the plays when it counted.”
The first half was a feeling out process between the two teams with the game being played within nine points range. NIU opened with a three-point advantage, its largest of the game, on the game’s first basket when Baker connected on a three-pointer from the left corner.
After a pair of ties, the Huskies held the lead for three minutes before UA used an 11-2 run to take its largest lead of the opening stanza, 25-19, when Robotham connected on a three from the right arc.
The visitors nibbled away at their deficit, outscoring the Zips 12-5 to take a 31-30 lead at halftime when freshman Levi Bradley connected on a three from left arc with 36.7 seconds remaining in the opening frame.
NIU matched its largest lead of the game as Jaylen Key hit the first basket of the second period.
The game remained close until a key moment at the 13:31 mark. after a personal foul was called on Johnson, Dambrot then incurred a technical foul for his outburst regarding the foul call.
When asked about the tech later, Dambrot said “I did what I had to do. I did it to get the crowd into the game and to tell our players the importance of the game.”
After the technical, Akron used a 7-0 spurt to open a six-point advantage, 45-39, on a pair of free throws by Antino Jackson with 12:36 remaining.
On UA’s next possession, Cheatham hit a three from the right arc at the 5:10 mark. The Zips then slowly but steadily started expanding a lead that grew to as many as 12 points in the final minute before winning by 10.
When asked about the turning point in the game, Montgomery said “The three by Cheatham. That was a back breaker.”
Among the keys to the game:
1) NIU’s top two scorers, Baker and junior Marin Maric, were held to a combined 15 points (Baker 10 before fouling out with 2:17 remaining in the game and Maric had five with six rebounds.
2) There were 46 total fouls called in the contest, with NIU incurring 29 of them.
3) The Zips went 17-of-23 from the free throw line in the second half and 26-of-35 over the 40 minutes.
Both teams return to action on Saturday with UA starting a two-game road trip at Ball State while NIU heads to Miami.