HOUSTON, Texas – For the third time in program history, the Akron Zips opened the National Invitation Tournament with a win as the seventh-seeded Zips defeated the No. 2 seeded Houston Cougars, 78-75, on Wednesday at Texas Southern's Health and Physical Education Arena in Houston, Texas.
With the win, the Zips moved to 27-8 overall, becoming the first team in school history to record 27 wins in a season. In addition, 13th-year head coach Keith Dambrot led Akron to all three NIT First Round wins.
The Zips used a balance scoring attack in a game that featured 16 lead changes and 15 tied scores. Senior center Isaiah Johnson (Cincinnati, Ohio) led the Zips' scoring efforts with 21 points, and sophomore Jimond Ivey (Cleveland, Ohio) added 10 points to complete Akron's double-digit scorers.
However, the game hinged on four clutch free throws by junior Noah Robotham (Las Vegas Nev.) with under 20 seconds left in regulation. Robotham recorded nine points in 26 minutes of action, while senior Kwan Cheatham, Jr. (Cincinnati, Ohio) and sophomore Josh Williams (Akron, Ohio) also chipped in nine points.
For three players, the NIT First Round game was a homecoming as Houstn natives Antino Jackson, Daniel Utomi and Emmanuel Olojakpoke were able to play in front of a hometown crowd. Jackson tallied eight points while Utomi and Olojakpoke each had two.
In his postseason debut, freshman Tavian Dunn-Martin (Huntington, W.Va.) knocked down some big shots in crucial moments, shooting 3-of-4 from the floor and 2-of-3 from deep. Dunn-Martin buried his first shot attempt from beyond the 3-point arc with 2:37 left in the first half to cut the Cougar lead to two-points, 31-29. He followed with a jumper just inside the arc to keep the Zips within two points early in the second half, 46-44, but it was a 3-pointer with 2:47 left in the game that was the most impactful.
Johnson lifted the Zips to a 67-66 lead at the 3:26 mark, but Houston's Rob Gray immediately responded with an aggressive attack through the lane to flip the scoreboard for the 10th time, 68-67. Without hesitation, Dunn-Martin let one fly from deep, and buried a go-ahead triple from the top of the arc for a 70-68 Zips' advantage.
Again, Gray attacked the basket and finished, knotting the game for the 13th time at 70 points apiece with 2:30 left to play. Next, Johnson split a pair of free throws, and with 1:51 on the clock, Houston stole the lead with a Damyean Dotson jumper.
Akron, regained the lead with a pair of Ivey bonus buckets at the 1:22 mark, but the Cougars continued to fight, tying the game 73-73 with under a minute left to play. Johnson split another pair of free throws to give Akron its final lead of the game with 38-seconds on the clock.
Gray attempted to attack the painted area again, but Akron's defense did not allow the first-team All-American Conference player to get the shot off as Johnson stripped Gray and Jackson grabbed the loose ball. Jackson dribbled out of trouble and threw the ball to Robotham, who was fouled. Robotham buried both free throws to give Akron a 3-point lead, 76-73, with 18 seconds to play.
Houston turned to Gray once again. He went straight to the rim and finished off the window to cut the Zips' lead to one-point with 10 seconds remaining. Robotham was fouled on the inbounds pass, an buried two more shots from the charity stripe. Houston's final attempt to tie the game fell short as Johnson contested the long-range attempt.
Akron finished the contest shooting 43.4 percent from the field (25-of-53) and 40.9 percent from long distance (9-of-22). The Zips added a 76.7 percent effort from the free throw line (23-of-30). The Zips won the turnover battle, 9-10, and tied the Cougars on the glass with 34 rebounds each.
Gray led the Cougars in scoring with 24 points and Dotson followed with 19 points. Houston shot 45.8 percent from the field (27-of-59), 46.7 from deep (7-of-15), and 82.4 percent from the charity stripe (14-of-17).
The seventh-seeded Zips will advance to the second round of the NIT to play No. 6 seed UT Arlington on Monday, March 20 at 8 p.m. ET in Arlington, Texas at the College Park Center.