CLEVELAND — After what Akron’s players and fans endured, winning the championship game turned out to be the easy part.
The Zips pushed through the pain.
One week after its magnificent season nearly crashed with the suspension of the starting point guard, Akron regrouped and accomplished one of its goals Saturday night by beating Ohio 65-46 to win the Mid-American Conference championship and the league’s automatic spot in the NCAA Tournament.
The stunning arrest of guard Alex Abreu was followed by something nearly as unexpected — Akron won it all.
“This is just an unbelievable tribute to our players,” Zips coach Keith Dambrot said. “It’s unreal just how everybody in our program was. It was a total team effort from our trainer to our strength coach to our athletic director to our sports psychologist to our secretary. It’s unreal just how everybody in our program was.
“We have a group of people who take care of one another. That’s why we got through it.”
Demetrius Treadwell scored 13 points as the top-seeded Zips (26-6) overcame the loss of Abreu, who was arrested on drug trafficking charges last week. But Akron’s players rallied around Dambrot, and the Zips, playing in their seventh straight MAC title game, won their third title in five years to get back in the NCAA brackets.
“This is the best one — by far,” Dambrot said. “The first one was great, don’t get me wrong. But to do what we did under the circumstances, you can’t even compare.”
Treadwell added 10 rebounds and was named the tournament’s most outstanding player. Chauncey Gilliam also scored 13 points, Nick Harney had 11 and Zeke Marshall 10 with nine rebounds.
Ohio’s D.J. Cooper, the MAC’s Player of the Year, missed all eight field-goal attempts and scored just three points. The Bobcats (24-9) shot 1-of-20 on 3-pointers and 33 percent overall from the floor.
“It’s very disappointing,” Cooper said. “Nobody ever picked us to go out like this. It’s difficult. For me personally, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like this.”
In the final minute, the fiery Dambrot, who acknowledged being drained by Abreu’s loss and the pressure of the past week, put on his suit coat and shook hands with his staff. When the horn sounded, Akron’s players danced onto the floor of Quicken Loans Arena to celebrate a win they wrapped up with tough defense.
Akron held Ohio to 19 percent (5-of-27) shooting and just 17 points in the second half.
“Our guys just showed tremendous toughness at the defensive end,” Dambrot said. “Sometimes we look like we’re slopping it around on offense, but we played a great defensive game.”
Cooper was bottled up all night. The only Division I player to record 2,000 points, 900 assists, 600 rebounds and 300 steals in his career, he never got going and was taken out in the final three minutes with the game out of reach.
“D.J. is such a great player,” Ohio coach Jim Christian said. “Let’s face it. When he doesn’t play well, it’s hard for us to score.”
Cooper scored his first points on two free throws after Treadwell, who wore orange polka-dot socks and red sneakers for the final, was called for a technical with 17:37 left. The shots gave Ohio the lead, but the technical seemed to fire up the Zips, who got a basket inside from Treadwell and went on a 9-0 run to open a 40-33 lead on freshman Carmelo Betancourt’s steal and layup.
“I felt like it picked me up about four or five notches and it got our team cranked up, too,” Treadwell said of the technical for arguing after a call. “It got us all into the game.”
Moments before the second half started, Treadwell and Cooper exchanged words near midcourt.
“I was telling him we’re going to win this trophy right here,” Treadwell said, pointing to the MAC title trophy sitting on the dais.
Reggie Keely scored 19 points to lead Ohio, which opened the game 11-of-17 from the floor but went just 7-of-37 the rest of the way. The Bobcats led the MAC in scoring and field-goal percentage, but were taken out of their game and forced into taking bad shots.
“They started missing shots and they got desperate,” said Betancourt, who started for Abreu. “You could see it in their faces.”
It’s been a tough week for everyone around the Akron program following the arrest of the popular Abreu, who was charged with possession and felony trafficking after police said he accepted a package containing 5 pounds of marijuana.
The suspension threatened to squelch a season like no other for the Zips. They won 19 straight games, nearly got into the AP Top 25 and were picked by some experts to be the midmajor team to watch in the NCAAs, just as the Bobcats were a year ago when they knocked off Michigan and South Florida to make the national quarterfinals.
Now, it’s Akron’s turn to cause some of its own March madness.
“I’m trying to win the NCAA Tournament, honestly,” the 7-foot Marshall said. “I feel like there’s nothing that can stop us. You’ve seen the adversity we had to go through with losing our starting point guard and we were able to do what we needed to do to get our wins. And that’s why I feel like in the NCAA Tournament that’s what we’re going to do.”