Keith Dambrot was always a big Reggie Witherspoon supporter. The Akron coach talked in the past of how two weeks in advance his teams would start preparing to defend Witherspoon’s motion offense. And Dambrot was among the more critical coaches in the league when UB decided to make a change after last season and ultimately bring in Bobby Hurley.
But Wednesday night, after UB’s frenetic 96-90 victory over Akron at Alumni Arena, Dambrot was quick to say the Bulls might be on to something. Teams just don’t carve up the Zips, one of the MAC’s top defensive teams, the way UB did while shooting 63.3 percent from the field.
Almost 100 points on Akron? Now that’s rarified air. Consider that the last team to hang 100 on the Zips was Louisville way back in 2005. It hasn’t happened in a conference game since 2003, and that one went double overtime.
“He’s done a really good job getting them to play under his personality,” Dambrot said of Hurley. “They’re gritty, they’re tough, they’re well-coached. I like their team. I like their team as well as any team in the league. And I think he’s done a terrific job coaching them. You can tell they like playing for him. They play hard. They’re gritty. You can tell he’s been around basketball a lot of years.”
This was a vital victory for the Bulls as they strive for no worse than a top-four finish in the MAC. With the win UB now stands tied with Akron for third overall, a game behind Western Michigan and a half-game behind Toledo, which plays Bowling Green tonight. UB has five games remaining, three of them on the road.
It’s hard to imagine UB could play any better offensively. Josh Freelove scored 21 points while Javon McCrea and Jarod Oldham each had 20. McCrea also had 13 rebounds and, with eight assists, narrowly missed a triple-double.
“It starts with McCrea,” Dambrot said. “We really didn’t have an answer for him and that led to the other. I guess sometimes you got to pick your poison. We would have been better off letting McCrea get 50 and not let those other guys score. They’re capable of winning the tournament because of him.
“And they got good effort from Oldham, I thought that was key,” Dambrot added. “He’s not really a scorer but he scored tonight which really helped them.”
UB started out hot, making 9 of its first 11 shots from the field, and barely relented. Oldham drove with impunity and was 8 of 9 from the floor. McCrea beat double teams or sometimes dished it off to open teammates. Freelove put his imprint on the game inside and out, going 9 of 13 from the field, including 3 of 6 from behind the arc. Shannon Evans had a 13-point night that included a conventional three-point play that put UB in command, 90-83, with 1:16 remaining. All systems were a go.
“I’m excited for our guys and for our program,” Hurley said. “This is a great win. Akron deserves a lot of credit. They’re a great program, great team. They’re one of the contenders. And it was great to see the way the offense played today. I thought it was terrific basketball to watch. Really high-level college basketball.”
Unlike Saturday, when the Bulls blew a late lead in a home loss to Ohio University, this time they answered when Akron made its runs. Justin Moss had a big rebound basket off the bench. Oldham made a huge 17-foot jumper. Jarryn Skeete struck from three when Akron was within four, It went on and on. This is what Hurley’s been after all along.
“I’m fully bought into the system and everything coach preaches,” McCrea said.
“I feel the same way,” Oldham said. “He coaches with passion so we have to play with passion. It goes both ways.”
A UB-Akron game totalling 186 points. Who would have ever thought it possible?
“I would have bet my house it wouldn’t be 96-90 because I think both teams are good defensive teams,” Dambrot said. “Tonight we were a half-step slow. They had good juice. We had trouble keeping them in front and really had no answers.”