AKRON, Ohio -- Two months ago, University of Akron junior men's basketball player Deji Ibitayo had fallen out of the starting lineup for the Zips and missed five of seven games in a four-week span.
But when it counted down the stretch, the Chicago native was a big factor in helping the team overcome a three-game losing streak to lock up the No. 4 seed in this week's Mid-American Conference Tournament at Quicken Loans Arena.
Ibitayo averaged 2.71 field goals and 1.43 three-pointers per game over Akron's last seven contests.
"I just wanted to help my team as much as possible," Ibitayo said. "I get in the gym as much as I can in the morning, try to put up as many shots as I can and they've been working for me. That's been great, and I've been able to contribute to the team."
After a 13-point performance in a 66-50 loss to Ohio University on Feb. 22 followed by a 14-point night on four-of-seven three-point shooting in a 65-61 setback at Miami of Ohio on Feb. 26, Ibitayo made his largest impact against Akron's biggest rival.
Down for much of the game against the Kent State Golden Flashes last Friday, Akron got a lift as Ibitayo scored 11 points on four-of-seven shooting in only 18 minutes on the floor. He was three for four from three-point range, the fifth game this season in which he buried multiple shots from beyond the arc.
"I like Deji," said Akron coach Keith Dambrot. "He deserves it. He spends a lot of time in the gym. He's had a rough career here to this point. We're going to give him the Jimmy Conyers Award. That's what we call it when you don't do much for three years and then, your senior year, you're First Team All-MAC.
"Sometimes, it's opportunities. Sometimes, it's confidence. But Deji deserves to play well and he's one of the nicest kids we have in our program, so I'm happy for him."
Ibitayo said mental toughness "was big" during the stretch of time when he was out of the rotation. In his opinion, it was one of the reasons he was able to help the team at the end of the regular season, something he looks to do again as the Zips prepare to take on the Ohio Bobcats tonight in the quarterfinals of the MAC Tournament.
"It was huge, as a matter of fact," Ibitayo said. "You just never know, coming to the game, if you're going to get in or not. (It was about) just staying positive as much as possible, staying positive and just keep working on your game. It's the only thing you can do, really. You can control what you can control and that's what I did. Luckily, it happened for me."