As if the message hadn't been driven home often enough over the past two seasons, the Ohio University Bobcats decided to break out the reinforcement one more time.
Now, it's understood. They are indeed the Kent State men's basketball team's worst nightmare.
The Bobcats handed the Golden Flashes the latest and perhaps most painful in a series of setbacks on Saturday afternoon, when they escaped the jam-packed M.A.C. Center with a 69-63 triumph that kept the home team from claiming its first Mid-American Conference crown of any kind in 50 years.
"There's a mental thing with us against that team, and I was hoping to take care of it today," said Kent State coach Gary Waters, whose squad failed to clinch the MAC East Division title. "I give Ohio credit, because they came in here and handled us pretty well. We beat ourselves in our other home loss to Miami, but today we just got beat."
Ohio (16-9, 11-5 MAC) has now won four straight brutal physical battles over the Flashes (19-8, 12-4 MAC). Two of those defeats cost Kent State a MAC regular-season title, and another came in the quarterfinals of last year's MAC Tournament.
"If I knew the reason why they keep beating us, I'd do something about it," said Waters. "I know they match up with us well. Their strength is inside, where we're not as strong as we've been in the past."
Few players in the country can match strength with Ohio sophomore bulldozer Brandon Hunter, who almost single-handedly broke the Flashes' hearts by pouring in 33 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. The 270-pound wrecking ball ignited a 29-9 mid-game run that swung all the momentum toward the Bobcats, who were nearly blown out of the gym early on.
"Brandon's a load for everyone to handle, but we thought Kent would really have a tough time matching up with him in the post," said Ohio coach Larry Hunter. "We knew if he played well, we could make a game of it."
Kent State junior center Mike Perry had some success guarding Hunter early on, but was forced to the bench after drawing his third foul with his team leading 32-24 late in the first half.
Hunter immediately went to work, scoring seven points in the final 2:35 to help the Bobcats close to within 36-35 even though they were thoroughly outplayed for much of the first 20 minutes.
After Hunter reeled off eight straight points to open the second half, the Flashes suddenly found themselves in a world of hurt. They couldn't buy a basket on one end, and they couldn't stop Hunter or suddenly red-hot Ohio shooting guard Steve Esterkamp (20 points) on the other.
"Hunter obviously hurt us, but Esterkamp's a guy we've shut down in the past. His 20 points were a big key," said Waters. "Offensively, we tried changing some things but nothing would work."
Still, the struggling Flashes never stopped fighting.
Junior guard Andrew Mitchell (18 points, 7 rebounds), who bounced off Ohio's wide bodies like a pinball all afternoon long, scored six straight points in the closing minutes to keep his team within striking distance.
Despite going through separate stretches of over six and 10 minutes without a field goal, Kent State managed to whittle an eight-point deficit with 1:53 remaining down to 66-63 following a Trevor Huffman 3-pointer with 1:05 to play.
The Flashes then had a chance to tie after Anthony Jones missed the front end of a 1-and-1, but Demetric Shaw misfired from 3-point range.
Kent State clanked its last five shots from the floor and shot 32-percent overall, including a frigid 23-percent effort in the second half (7-of-31).
"We didn't shoot the ball well, we didn't force turnovers," said Waters. "It was just one of those days. A bad day with a bad ending."
The only good news for the Flashes is that they're still in the thick of the MAC championship hunt. They can still capture the East Division title by winning their final two games against Buffalo and Akron, and can claim the overall conference crown with two wins and a Central Michigan loss _ quite possibly at Ohio on Monday.
"I told the team this is the last time we're talking about this game," said Waters. "We're putting this one behind us and moving on."