Usually, basketball is a tall man’s game.
On Friday night in Oxford, however, it was the little guys who dominated for both teams.
For the Miami RedHawks, Mekhi Lairy was the team’s leading scorer with 24 points, his career-high at Miami. The 5’8” junior guard made two of his four 3-point attempts, and was also getting into the lane for layups and pull-up jumpers.
On the other side, Akron’s senior guard Loren Cristian Jackson led the Zips with 25 points. Jackson, also 5’8”, leads the Mid-American Conference (MAC) in scoring this year with 21.6 points per game.
“We both grew up all our life playing against bigger players, so college basketball was pretty much just the same,” Lairy said. “Just go out there and just be yourself and compete.”
Akron started the game on fire, making five of its first seven shots to get out to a 12-4 early lead. The teams then traded baskets, as a layup from redshirt junior guard Isaiah Coleman-Lands cut the deficit to four.
A missed 3-pointer from the Zips led to a putback layup by sophomore forward Enrique Freeman, making the score 23-16 in favor of Akron.
From there, the RedHawks caught fire, going on a 12-2 run. Lairy made a three to tie the game, then redshirt sophomore guard Myja White made another shot from behind the arc for a 28-25 lead.
The rest of the half was back and forth. After two free throws gave the Zips a 34-33 lead, Lairy took over. He made a short pull-up jumper in the lane, then hit a three-pointer with the shot clock winding down. The next possession, he got a steal and an easy transition layup.
Lairy scored the last seven points of the half for Miami en route to a 40-37 halftime lead.
Junior forward Eli McNamara scored the first five points of the half for the RedHawks, giving the team a 45-40 advantage. Akron took the lead right back with consecutive threes from senior guard Maishe Dailey and Jackson.
From there, the game was back and forth, as it seemed like almost every made shot gave a team the lead again. There were 14 lead changes in the game, with 10 of them coming in the second half.
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Junior guard Bryan Trimble Jr. made a 3-pointer to give the Zips a 49-47 lead, but Miami sophomore guard Dae Dae Grant answered with a three of his own. A few possessions later, another made 3-pointer by Jackson put the Zips up, 55-54.
The teams traded baskets for the next two minutes, with Jackson and Lairy shouldering the load for their respective teams. After two free throws by Lairy, Jackson found sophomore forward Ali Ali for a shot from behind the arc, giving the team a 62-60. A layup by Trimble Jr. gave Akron some breathing room.
With the Zips up by five, Lairy split the defense and drove in for the layup as he was fouled, cutting the lead to two with a free throw. A few possessions later, Jackson made another three to give Akron a 73-67 lead.
The RedHawks didn’t give in. Coleman-Lands scored the team’s next six points to tie the game at 73. Coleman-Lands, a key reserve for the RedHawks, entered the game early in the second half and basically stayed out there for the rest of the game. He was the team’s second-leading scorer with 12 points.
“I just wanted to keep him on the floor because he’s a heady player, and he can make shots and also make decisions with the ball in his hand,” head coach Jack Owens said.
With just 3:03 left in the game, the score was still tied at 73 heading into the media timeout.
Ultimately, Jackson was the difference for the Zips. A turnover by Lairy gave the ball back to Akron, leading to a transition layup and the foul for Jackson. On the other end, Lairy was fouled and made only one of his two free throws.
The Zips had the ball, up 76-74 with a minute and a half remaining.
For 29 seconds, the RedHawks did their job. A good defensive effort from senior forward Dalonte Brown made Jackson pick up his dribble with just four seconds left on the shot clock.
With an 11-inch height difference between the two, Jackson pivoted and pirouetted into a contested three-pointer with Brown all over him.
Somehow, it went in.
It was the biggest shot of the night, putting Akron up by five. Grant made two free throws at the other end, but Jackson drove in for another layup, essentially sealing the game.
“It was a prayer that was answered for him,” Owens said.
The final score was 83-76, Akron.
Before the game, the RedHawks honored four of its seniors: guards Milos Jovic and Benjamin Littleken, and forwards Precious Ayah and Michael Ritchie. Jovic and Ayah played five minutes each, with Ayah scoring two points.
After a tough loss, Miami will travel to take on the Toledo Rockets this Tuesday at 7 p.m. The game will be broadcast on ESPN3.