If this season has taught the University of Akron men’s basketball team anything, it’s to find comfort in the chaos.
The Zips had three games postponed and overcame a 16-day layoff before Saturday, but opened Mid-American Conference play with an 88-76 win over Buffalo at Rhodes Arena.
What’s more, UA (8-3, 1-0) was without starting guard Bryan Trimble due to health protocols and was employing its third different starting lineup in three games.
On top of that, Garvin Clarke left early with an injury to take an already depleted bench and make it thinner.
“It was one of the best wins we’ve had in my five years here,” Zips coach John Groce said. “When you put all that together, I was so proud of the way they prepared and their no-excuses mentality. Nobody has complained about that stuff. They kept on trucking with their effort level, their toughness. The leadership from some of our older guys has been exceptional the last few days.”
UA felt the sting early as a much smaller Bulls team missing Josh Mballa (15.2 points per game, 8.2 rebounds) caused all sorts of matchup problems.
Ali Ali (career high 32 points, four assists), Enrique Freeman (14 points, 10 rebounds) and Xavier Castaneda (14 points) made up for Trimble’s absence and the Zips rumbled to their sixth win in a row.
Ali is the fourth player to lead the team in scoring this season.
“We’ve been dealing with a lot,” Groce said. “The next-man-up mentality was there. They were excited to play. We hadn’t played in so long. I’m really proud of my guys. It wasn’t an automatic. You have to do it day after day in this league because every game is different.”
That was apparent early when the speed of the Bulls (6-6, 0-2) had UA a step slow and Buffalo blew out to a 29-15 lead with 4:55 to go in the first half.
The Zips stemmed the tide and scored 19 of the final 29 points to end the half behind 38-34.
Whatever was said at halftime worked as well and UA led by as many 18 in the second half.
Much of that came from a torrid start to the second half. The Zips took the lead for good at 47-44 on a three-point play by Castaneda with 15:59 left.
“You expect change throughout the season,” Freeman said. “God forbid someone gets hurt. God forbid someone gets COVID. We’re obviously in a pandemic and you have to be able to come together as a team and as a family. When it’s time for guys to step up and it’s your turn, you have to do it.”
The biggest push came from Ali, who scored 19 second-half points in large part because of a 16-for-22 showing at the free-throw line.
When Ali wasn’t scoring, Castaneda (12 second-half points) and Freeman (10 second-half points) were leading the surge in an effort to make up for Trimble’s 10.8 points per game.
“We play different lineups in practice, knowing somebody could get hurt or with COVID people could get knocked out,” Ali said. “Just playing with each other since the summer we’ve all built chemistry by having different lineups in practice. It didn’t really startle us with the different lineup the past few games.
“We definitely needed [that surge before halftime]. It didn’t feel like that big of a lead to me. Once I looked up and saw how big of lead it was, I knew we needed to get stops and slow down offensively. We were rushing things. We needed to play at our own pace and that’s what we did the rest of the game.”
Ronald Segu and Jeenathan Williams led Buffalo with 19 points each.
UA won’t have much time to bask in the win over a Buffalo team that ended its season last year with Ohio coming to Rhodes Arena for the second of back-to-back home games on Tuesday.
The Bobcats (10-2, 1-0) are coming off a 12-point victory over Western Michigan and are riding a five-game winning streak and Trimble is considered day-to-day.
“It’s about coming in and being confident,” Freeman said. “It’s doing what we do best and playing to our strengths.”
Ohio at Akron
Time: 6 p.m. Tuesday
TV/Radio: CBSSN/WHLO (640-AM)
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: University of Akron defeats visiting Buffalo in MAC opener