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By Allen Moff | Staff writer
Senior Night went from showtime to an edge-of-your seat affair for the Kent State men's basketball players and fans, but all's well that ends well.
And Tuesday night ended extremely well for the Golden Flashes, who first held off a furious rally by Bowling Green to earn a 69-61 victory at the M.A.C. Center. Moments after the game ended the Flashes (18-12, 8-7 MAC) learned that they had clinched the fourth seed for the upcoming MAC Tournament, which includes a bye into the third round.
Not bad for a team that returned just one starter and two of its top eight scorers, and that stood 2-5 in conference play after the opening month of January.
"That's huge. That was our goal going into this last stretch of the season," said Kent State senior guard Randal Holt, referring to the No. 4 seed. "Now we don't have to play so many games in order to win the tournament. We're going into the tournament playing our best ball. I feel like we're great offensively, we're improving on defense, we're maturing as a team and we're coming together. That's just great for us going into the tournament."
Senior stars Holt and Chris Evans fittingly led the way while playing their final home game.
Holt moved into ninth on KSU's all-time scoring list (1,338 points) after netting a game-high 16 points, burying 3-of-4 3-pointers, and added three rebounds and three assists. Meanwhile Evans stuffed the stat sheet with 12 points, 12 rebounds, a career-high seven assists and three steals.
"Tonight was definitely a big win for us, especially on Senior Night," said Holt. "More importantly, we kept our winning streak alive."
The Flashes have now won four consecutive games and five straight at home, and seven out of their last nine overall. And as was the case in most of those affairs, this win didn't come easily.
Kent State, which was drubbed at Bowling Green 70-55 back in January, was actually outscored 50-20 in the paint and 22-9 in fastbreak points but still won thanks mostly to 3-point shooting. The Flashes sunk 9-of-20 shots from long range, while the Falcons finished 0-of-9.
"The way we won sort of personifies our team in a lot of ways," said KSU coach Rob Senderoff. "Play well, find a way to screw it up, then as opposed to folding we battle back and are able to get a great win. I'm proud of our team. I don't think many people would have thought we would have gotten that (fourth seed) with as many new people as we had here."
The Flashes raced to a 12-2 lead following a 3-pointer by sophomore guard Devareaux Manley, as the Falcons (12-18, 6-9) opened the game by missing eight of their first nine shots from the floor. The first points by seniors A'ston Calhoun and Jordan Crawford, Bowling Green's top two scorers, didn't come until Crawford hit a pair of free throws to bring the Falcons within 20-14 at the 8:46 mark of the first half.
Holt responded with a 3-pointer from the corner off a feed from Evans, triggering an 8-0 run. Kent State had Bowling Green doubled up at 28-14 following a three-point play by Evans. Shortly thereafter, showtime appeared to be in session when Evans threw down a breakaway windmill slam to push the lead to 35-18.
Instead, the Flashes frittered away most of the advantage during a mistake-plagued final two minutes.
The same Falcons who seemed ready to get run out of the gym closed the half on an 11-0 run that was aided by a pair of Evans turnovers and a technical foul on Senderoff. Following a three-point play by Craig Seeley, Bowling Green raced into the locker room feeling real good about trailing just 35-29.
"First of all I screwed up, I got a technical. That's on me, I shouldn't have done that," said Senderoff. "I think I have two in the two years I've coached. I'm generally pretty smart about it, and I was not tonight. Then we had a lot of bad possessions, got a little bit loose with the ball, and we stopped guarding. They got everything in transition. It was layup, layup, layup."
When Bowling Green scored three points to open the second half, Kent State suddenly found itself in a dogfight.
The Flashes held off Bowling Green's first charge of the second half thanks first to a 3-pointer by Brewer, then to a pair of bombs by Holt that pushed a lead that had been whittled to one back out to five at 49-44.
But the Falcons' next rally didn't end until they had claimed their first lead of the game at 58-57 following a dunk by Sealey with 7:29 to play.
"That's what makes this team who they," said Senderoff. "(After BG's rally) you could fold up shop, you could get panicky and start trying to do things outside yourself, but we stuck to it. We've gotten better at that as the season's gone along. That's the progress of this group, to be able to fight back."
Holt responded with a pair of free throws that wound up putting his team ahead to stay. Moments later, a rare dunk by Kent State junior forward Mark Henniger over Bowling Green shot-blocker Richaun Holmes as he was fouled pushed the lead to 62-58 after Henniger hit the free throw to complete the and-one.
"That's been coming for a long time now," Henniger smiled. "(Evans) gave me the assist down low. We needed something to boost the team and the opportunity was there, so I just took advantage of it."
The Flashes' defense took over down the stretch, holding Bowling Green to three points in the final 7:29. After Crawford's third straight miss, Henniger (9 points) scored again to push the lead to six.
"I think Mark in particular and (junior forward Darren Goodson) as well showed out hard on the ball screens and made it harder for Crawford to turn the corner and slice up our defense," said Senderoff. "I think (Crawford) ended up taking a couple contested shots because he wasn't able to make plays for other guys. He's not easy to contain, but late in the game we were able to do that."
Bowling Green scored its only bucket of the final 7:29 on a lob from Crawford to Holmes, who slammed it home to bring his team within 64-60 at the 2:43 mark. Kent State's lead was still four with just under two minutes to play when Brewer dribbled hard to his right, pulled up and nailed a 12-footer as the shot clock expired to push the lead to 67-61.
"It was one of my sweet spots I was getting to," said Brewer. "I had to get there and make it. It was all for the team."
After a couple more defensive stops, Holt and Evans received their curtain call with seven seconds to play while fellow senior Brian Frank -- who made the first start of his career -- re-entered the game.
"For the fans to show their appreciation for us and what we've been able to provide for them is a humbling feeling, definitely," said Evans. "Rather overwhelming, and kind of emotional."
Goodson added 12 points and five rebounds for the Flashes, who will now play their regular season finale at Akron on Friday in a game that's meaningless based on seeding for the MAC Tournament.
Akron (24-5, 14-1) nailed down the top seed by defeating Miami 72-58, while losses by Buffalo (72-69 at Ohio) and Eastern Michigan (61-59 at Central Michigan) gave the Flashes the No. 4 seed. They will open MAC Tournament play with a third-round game on Thursday at 6:30 at Quicken Loans Arena.
Calhoun led Bowling Green with 13 points and seven rebounds, while Crawford added 12 points and eight assists with five turnovers.