Randal Holt was taking the big shot. Pure and simple.
When the ball reached the Kent State senior guard's hands with his team trailing Bethune-Cookman by one point and 15.3 seconds showing on the clock, Holt knew it was eventually heading toward the basket — for better or for worse.
Holt proceeded to keep his dribble alive, shaking off challenges from one defender after another as the clock ticked down. With about five seconds left he made his move, darting to a small ray of daylight on the right and creating just enough room to release a 15-footer that found nothing but net with 1.3 seconds left to give the Golden Flashes a thrilling 69-68 victory Tuesday night at the M.A.C. Center.
“I'm never afraid to take big shots in those types of moments,” said Holt. “I just had my mind made up that I was gonna shoot and make it. That's just what happened. I stepped in there with confidence, drove right hard, took a little step back and knocked it down.”
Holt's one sweet stroke changed the entire complexion of the season-opening five-game homestand for Kent State, which wound up a respectable 3-2 and bounced back from a disheartening overtime loss to Valparaiso on Sunday.
“It would have been tough for our team had we lost again,” said KSU coach Rob Senderoff.
Senderoff second-guessed himself for not giving the ball to Holt in the final minute of regulation against Valpo, and vowed to not make the same mistake again.
“I told myself if we're in that type of situation again, I'm not having someone else handle it, then try to reverse it and get it to Randal,” said Senderoff. “It's going to Randal, and he'll make the decision. And Randal did what Randal does, take and make big shots.”
Holt had actually struggled for much of the night. He was forced to leave the game after picking up his fourth foul with 8:48 left, and made just 5-of-15 field goals overall for 13 points. Still, Senderoff went to Holt without the least bit of hesitation with the game on the line.
“That's what he's done his whole career here,” said Senderoff. “There's nobody that you'd rather have shoot that shot than him — nobody in all of the time that I've been here.”
Holt's shot saved the Flashes on a night when Bethune-Cookman (1-3) drained 13-of-28 3-pointers, including 6-of-11 by senior guard Kevin Dukes (game-high 18 points) and 4-of-6 by reserve guard Paul Strickland (15 points).
Kent State jumped out to an early nine-point lead, but actually trailed 33-28 at halftime after the Wildcats buried nine shots from long-range. The Flashes then opened the second half with a 10-0 run, and actually led 61-53 with 5:15 to play before the Wildcats' bombs started finding their mark again.
A layup by Alex Smith gave Bethune-Cookman a 67-66 lead with a minute left, then an illegal screen call on KSU freshman Chris Ortiz gave the ball back to the Wildcats. Flashes junior forward Mark Henniger then made his own game-saving play on the defensive end, showing off a ball screen some 30 feet from the basket and forcing Dukes to step out of bounds in front of his own bench.
“Mark did a great job of showing his hands — if his hands go down at all, it's a foul call — and he did a great job of moving his feet and not letting the kid turn the corner,” said Senderoff. “Defensively, he's our best help guy, and our best show guy on ball screens. That's a point guard that he kept in front of him. Great play by Mark.”
Senior Chris Evans made his share of big plays on both ends, piling up a team-high 14 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and two blocks. Ortiz received the first start of his young career and made the most of it, finishing with 13 points and eight rebounds — both of which were the most by a KSU freshman since 2007.
Junior forward Melvin Tabb added nine points off the bench, hitting 5-of-6 free throws as the Flashes shot 20-of-25 from the free-throw line, while the Wildcats were just 5-of-11.
Kent State will return to action Saturday night, visiting Nebraska.
Ortiz started in place of junior forward Darren Goodson, who started the first four games of the season, but did not play against the Wildcats.
“Darren's been in a little bit of a funk,” said Senderoff. “I think Darren needs to relax a little bit and get some of the fire back to compete at this level. We need Darren.”
Meanwhile, freshman Kellon Thomas (6 points, 3 assists) started at point guard in place of sophomore Kris Brewer.
“Kris will be our starting point guard, but he played 41 minutes the other night (against Valparaiso),” said Senderoff. “My point is, when you play at Kent State it's not OK to lose at home. It's just not. And if you're going to be the point guard here for the next three years, you've gotta take some responsibility. That was really it.
“I thought both of them brought energy and played really hard. Ortiz made a couple big plays down the stretch.”