The best player in the Mid-American Conference was tired of losing, fed up with victory slipping just beyond UB’s grasp, frustrated by a season that’s been maddeningly erratic. And on Saturday night, Javon McCrea took it all out on the team with the nation’s longest winning streak.
In a statement game that enhances his credentials and maybe even locks up the Mid-American Conference Player of the Year Award, McCrea dazzled and dominated as the Bulls brought Akron’s 19-game streak to a crashing conclusion, 81-67, before 4,204 energized fans at Alumni Arena.
UB built a five-point halftime lead, fell behind one and then pulled away behind McCrea’s variety show. He scored 18 of his game-high 26 points in the second half and did it with a stunning array of offensive skills. He made jumpers from just inside the arc, scored off a cross-over move in the lane, baffled Akron 7-footer Zeke Marshall with a stutter-step jumper and banked home a scoop layup.
“Before the game I told Javon, ‘Dominate,’ ” said senior captain Tony Watson. “I told him he was the best post in the conference and he needed to put on a display tonight and I think he really took that to heart. He was the most aggressive player on the court and he dominated.”
McCrea has scored in double figures in every MAC game and entered second in the conference with a 19.7 average. He’s also fourth in field goal percentage, second in rebounding and second in blocks. If there was a mark against him it might have been the lackluster 11-point game he had in UB’s 68-64 loss at Akron on Jan. 26.
“I didn’t play as well as I wanted to the first time we met so I wanted to come out tonight and be aggressive against Akron,” McCrea said. “I knew I wasn’t likely to score a lot of post-up buckets so I wanted to score a lot at the top of the key.”
McCrea went 13 of 18 from the field and yet the points that finished off the Zips came on his backdoor feed to Will Regan (16 points) for a layup and a 73-63 lead with 2:07 remaining. UB’s first-ever victory over a ranked opponent (Akron is No. 24 in the coaches’ poll) was assured and the students were successfully dissuaded from rushing the floor.
“He just got in the middle of the zone and he draws a lot of attention and he saw me and I just finished it,” Regan said.
The Bulls (12-7, 7-7) pulled off the feat with an ironman lineup. While Akron played eight players at least 12 minutes, UB got 40-minute games out of its starting backcourt of Jarryn Skeete (18 points) and Watson (13 points) and a scant 13 minutes out of its bench. Some of that sub time was due to Auraum Nuiriankh being ejected along with Akron’s Deji Ibitayo with 4:41 left. His replacement, Raphell Thomas-Edwards, aided the cause by making three of four free throws.
Akron (23-5, 13-1) may have been ripe for the taking. The Zips were coming off an emotional overtime victory at Ohio that probably sewed up the regular-season title.
“You’re not always going to have it every night,” Marshall said.
“We got a winning streak, we’re in the Top 25 in the coaches poll, we’ve got everybody’s best shot all year long,” said Zips coach Keith Dambrot. “We played at Ohio, a tough game, an emotional game, and [UB is] good, they just haven’t won close games. We caught them on a good night.”
Entertainment value oozed as UB built a 37-32 halftime lead. McCrea dunked twice in transition, once after a block of Marshall. Marshall dunked twice himself, once off a pretty alley-oop from Alex Abreu. And the two big guys muscled it up inside, giving their battle the feel of a mid-major Bill Russell-Wilt Chamberlain matchup.
McCrea’s work in the paint helped free up the perimeter and the Bulls fired away with atypical accuracy. Watson went 3 of 4. Skeete made good on two of his three tries. And Regan added a pair from long range.
UB looked at it like taking care of unfinished business. They built a 20-point lead in the game at Akron but couldn’t sustain.
“We looked at this game as if it was just Akron,” Watson said. “We didn’t look at them as the 24th-ranked team in the country. We knew what we did the first time and we felt as if we gave them that game. So going into this game we had somewhat of a chip on our shoulder.”