University of Akron men's basketball team grinds out win over Eastern Michigan

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The University of Akron men’s basketball team overcame a sluggish first half to grind out a 46-44 Mid-American Conference win over Eastern Michigan at Rhodes Arena Saturday night.

The win was UA's third in a row, all in the past five days.

The Zips (12-5, 5-2) took an early lead, but the Eagles (7-10, 2-4) controlled the rest of the first half and the early part of the second half.

UA didn’t lead again until 12:56 of the second half as both teams suffered stagnant offense with little movement with or without the ball in hand.

University of Akron forward Enrique Freeman (25) celebrates with the Ak-Rowdies after beating Eastern Michigan 46-44 in a Mid-American Conference game Saturday night at Rhodes Arena. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]
University of Akron forward Enrique Freeman (25) celebrates with the Ak-Rowdies after beating Eastern Michigan 46-44 in a Mid-American Conference game Saturday night at Rhodes Arena. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]

Zips forward Ali Ali led all scorers with 15 points and point guard Xavier Castaneda added 14 points and three assists. Enrique Freeman, in a game in which every possession mattered, grabbed 14 rebounds (12 defensive, two offensive).

Forward Colin Golson had 14 points and five rebounds for the Eagles, who played without their top two scorers.

University of Akron forward Ali Ali (24) blocks the shot of Eastern Michigan forward Nate Scott (25) during the first half of the Zips' 46-44 Mid-American Conference victory Saturday at Rhodes Arena. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]
University of Akron forward Ali Ali (24) blocks the shot of Eastern Michigan forward Nate Scott (25) during the first half of the Zips' 46-44 Mid-American Conference victory Saturday at Rhodes Arena. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]

“We didn’t play very well, very cleanly,” UA coach John Groce said. “I do think we played with some toughness and found a way.”

Zips players offered similar observations.

“It was tough, but we were able to get it done. That’s the mindset right now,” Freeman said. “We didn’t play the way we wanted to, but we were able to get it done at the end.

Ali agreed.

“It’s a grind having three games in five days. We definitely feel it in our bodies,” he said. “We’ve got a quick turnaround with Central Michigan. It’s kind of just like the MAC Tournament, so it’s preparing us, obviously for March.”

It won’t be the last time the Zips see this type of schedule. Here are key takeaways from the game:

Eastern Michigan missing top two scorers

Even with the Eagles missing their top two scorers due to MAC COVID-19 protocols, the Zips could not take advantage of the situation. Without Noah Farrakahn and Monday Scott, the Eagles were missing more than 30 points per game.

But the Zips did not take advantage of that fact until the second half when they clamped down defensively.

Groce dismissed any notion that factor played into his team’s performance.

University of Akron forward Ali Ali (24) shoots during a 46-44 Mid-American Conference win over Eastern Michigan on Saturday night at Rhodes Arena. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]
University of Akron forward Ali Ali (24) shoots during a 46-44 Mid-American Conference win over Eastern Michigan on Saturday night at Rhodes Arena. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]

“Those guys are good players too, Division I players, too,” he said. “Every game is different, and that’s the thing I think you learn about conference play.”

Groce said the game was a struggle for his team.

“A physical game, a nasty, tough physical game,” he said.

Zips survive a slow start

It cannot be said the week’s schedule didn’t affect the Zips. Five days. Three games. Three wins. By Saturday night, it showed to a large degree. The Zips didn’t start particularly well and trailed 29-23 at halftime.

Groce said he got a hint of how the game would flow after the second media timeout.

“I knew it was going to be a struggle for both teams to score,” he said, “and that’s how the game was played.”

The Zips fared much better in the second half, primarily because of their defense. The Eagles missed their first 11 shots of the second half and the Zips held them to 15 points after the break.

“Things are different every game. We just have to do a better job of seeing those things early on in games and doing what we do and score easy buckets,” Ali said.

John Groce learns for immediate future

Given the brutality of the schedule, courtesy of COVID-19 issues, Groce is smart enough to realize his players need time away from the court. They normally put in work on Sundays but not this Sunday. They play Central Michigan on Tuesday and normally take two days of prep for conference games.

“I’m sort of reading the tea leaves,” Groce said. “In watching this game tonight, I really appreciate how mentally engaged [they were] all week in their preparation for all three games and how quick the turnarounds were. It was like an NBA schedule.”

UA faces this situation again in two weeks, but will do so with the knowledge of what does and does not work.

“If anything, we will probably try to do even less the next time we’re in this situation,” Groce said. “We certainly won’t be trying to do more."

Reach George M. Thomas at gthomas@thebeaconjournal.com or on Twitter @ByGeorgeThomas.

Akron at Central Michigan

Time: 7 p.m. Tuesday

TV/Radio: ESPN3/WHLO (640-AM)

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: University of Akron men's basketball team beats Eastern Michigan