But the Golden Flashes are still breathing, and that's the bottom line.
The Broncos momentarily knocked the wind out of them by claiming games one and two, putting the favored Flashes on the brink of elimination. But Kent State (20-11) collected itself in time to win games three and four, then captured a thrilling fifth and deciding game 15-13 when Western Michigan's return of junior Becky Neglia's serve landed about a foot past the end line.
"We knew if we just stuck together, we'd come out on top," said senior setter Nicole Collias, whose Flashes advanced to the MAC title game a year ago. "Everyone stayed positive. And I just knew we weren't going to lose."
Collias knew something few others did early on.
Kent State opened up a 9-5 lead in the opening game, but Western Michigan (13-15) responded with a 10-2 rally to earn a 15-11 win. Then the Flashes blew an early 5-1 lead in game two, losing once again 15-11 after hitting a dismal .038 (9 kills, 8 errors as a team).
Suddenly, a stunned group of Golden Flashes were faced with the unenviable task of having to win out to avoid a premature ending to a much-anticipated 1997 season.
"We knew we had been in that situation before," said Kent State rookie coach Mora Kanim. "The turning point of our season was at Marshall, when we were down 0-2 and we came back to win. So we knew we could do it. We knew we just had to stay confident and stay together."
And that, they did.
The Flashes hit .522 as a team in game three, and Carrie Patterson (12 digs) served three straight points to push a narrow two-point lead to 13-8 as Kent State went on to win 15-8.
"The big turnaround for us was that we started to pass better," said Kanim. "When we do that, I don't see many teams that can stop us for any length of time."
Kent State also clung to a 10-8 lead in game four before aces by Angela Snow and Joi Reinking allowed the Flashes to pull away for a 15-9 victory that set the stage for a fifth-game nailbiter.
"I was nervous (going into the fifth game). I admit it," said Collias, who finished with 59 assists and 10 digs. "But I knew if we approached it the same way we did the third and fourth games, we would win. And that's what we did. It was pretty awesome."
The Flashes, still riding the momentum from the previous two games, opened up a quick 5-0 lead on the seemingly staggered Broncos. But Western Michigan suddenly regrouped and eventually caught Kent State at 9.
The two teams then traded points until an error by the Broncos gave the Flashes a 14-13 lead, setting the stage for Neglia's game-winning point.
"I think Western Michigan did a great job of not quitting themselves," said Kanim. "They could have folded the tent and gone home in game five, but they didn't and that's why this was a great match ... and that's what makes winning it even sweeter."
Neglia finished with a team-high 18 kills and 10 digs for the Flashes, while Jennifer Maibach and Snow added 14 kills each, and Kellie Nowak 13 kills and 6 block assists, which tied a career high.
"The players made it happen and they should be extremely proud of themselves," said Kanim. "They should savor this one for a while."
Actually the Flashes can savor the win until Friday, when they'll take on Northern Illinois (23-3) in the MAC Tournament semifinals at Miami of Ohio.