CLEVELAND -- Chris Evans' performance in the closing minutes of Kent State's Mid-American Conference Tournament third-round tilt with Buffalo on Thursday left a lasting impression on everyone who took it in.
While Golden Flashes fans strutted away from Quicken Loans Arena bragging about their star senior forward's ability to make every play in the final three minutes to help his team claim a tough 70-68 triumph over the Bulls, Evans' coach was more thrilled by his one pass than his series of clutch buckets and rebounds.
With the shot clock winding down and his team clinging to a two-point lead, Evans lowered his shoulder and charged toward the basket. But instead of forcing a tough shot against multiple defenders Evans kicked the ball to sophomore sharp-shooter Devareaux Manley, who wound up using a pump fake to draw a foul. Manley then nailed two free throws with 21 seconds left to put the Flashes in command.
"To me the best thing that (Evans) did was late when they collapsed on him, as opposed to trying to force a shot -- which I think maybe two months ago he might have -- he kicked it to (Manley), and he was able to make that play," said KSU coach Rob Senderoff.
"He didn't feel the need to have to do it himself. Him and (fellow senior Randal Holt) have done such a good job as the year's gone on of trusting these other guys more, and the other guys have been playing better and earning that trust.
"The fact that he didn't try to force something is a testament to how we're playing."
Evans finished with game-highs of 25 points and 15 rebounds, all on the defensive end, with two assists and two steals. He literally was involved in every positive play on both ends of the floor that the Flashes (20-12) needed in the final three minutes to come away with a win that vaults them into a MAC Tournament Semifinal showdown with top-seeded arch-rival Akron (24-6) tonight at 6:30 p.m.
The win also gives Kent State 20 victories for the 14th time in the past 15 seasons and a six-game winning streak heading into tonight's battle. The Flashes, who returned just one starter and two of their top eight scorers from last year's 21-12 squad, are now 9-2 since starting the MAC season 2-5.
Fellow senior Randal Holt finished with 17 points and four rebounds, while junior forward Darren Goodson added 12 points and four boards.
Goodson hit a pair of free throws after grabbing an offensive rebound to give Kent State the lead for good at 62-61 with 3:15 left. Then Evans took over.
After Buffalo bulldozer junior forward Javon McCrea had a highly contested shot in the paint partially blocked by Flashes junior forward Mark Henniger, Evans hit a jumper to push the lead to three. He then grabbed a rebound off another McCrea miss, let the shot clock wind down, then flipped an incredible underhanded scoop shot off the glass and in from about five feet to give Kent State a 66-61 edge with 1:21 to play.
"At the moment I just had it going, I was feeling it," said Evans. "I seen the first time I hit (his defender) with the hesitation and he kind of stayed back, so the second time when the shot clock was winding down and I got the ball he kind of pressed up and I was able to shake loose and finish in the lane."
That circus shot brought back memories of the game-winner Evans made over three defenders in overtime, a five-footer he kissed off the glass to give Kent State an 83-81 overtime win and a sweep of the regular season series against Buffalo nearly two weeks ago.
"What sticks in my mind is Evans," said Bulls coach Reggie Witherspoon. "Him just going one-on-one at the end of the game was the clear difference. I think more than anything he's willing his team. I think the other things come just as a result of that. And he's a tough matchup. He has the size of a post and quickness, and he's really improved his ballhandling, so he has the dexterity of a perimeter player and the size of a post."
After Bulls junior guard Auraum Nuiriankh countered with a 3-pointer, Evans once again let the shot clock wind down before making his decision to feed Manley rather than force a shot in heavy traffic.
"Nuiriankh was guarding (Manley) in the corner and I drove it to (Manley's) corner for a reason, for him to make a choice, and he stepped up and helped off (Manley)," said Evans. "I threw it to him in the corner, and (Manley) went to the line and hit two big free throws for us."
The Flashes defense then would not let Buffalo (14-20) get an open look from 3, forcing Watson to make a driving layup that trimmed the lead to two with just 5.6 seconds remaining. Evans was then fouled, and calmly drained both free throws to put the game away.
McCrea, who totaled 65 points, 25 rebounds and 12 blocks in Buffalo's two previous losses to the Flashes this season, was "held" to 20 points and four rebounds on Thursday. He did much of his damage from the 15-foot range, as Kent State was able to outrebound the much bigger Bulls 38-30 and outscore them 34-20 in the paint.
One game after holding the high-flying Zips without a single fastbreak point, Buffalo did not score its first point in transition until senior guard Tony Watson flipped in a meaningless layup at the buzzer.
Watson finished with 23 points, 11 rebounds and five assists, and ignited a first-half run that put the Flashes in a hole they spent a long time digging out of.
After a sloppy four-turnover start in the first the opening four minutes, Evans scored a pair of baskets and fed Holt for a fastbreak layup during an 8-0 run that put Kent State on top 13-5. But McCrea quickly came to the aid of his struggling teammates, scoring 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting while the rest of the Bulls were 2-of-15 from the field -- including 0-for-10 from 3-point range.
A three-point play by McCrea brought Buffalo within 19-18, but Holt immediately drove on McCrea and drew his second foul, forcing him to the bench with 7:33 to go in the first half.
Advantage Flashes, right? Wrong.
Watson promptly drilled back-to-back 3s to end that 0-for-10 stretch from long range, and Regan added a bomb of his own during an 11-0 run that put the Bulls up 29-21.
Flashes sophomore guard Kris Brewer stopped the run with a jumper, then took a steal coast-to-coast for a layup before Watson added the last two of his 13 first-half points with a jumper that put Buffalo up 31-25.
Kent State then turned up the defense, holding the Bulls without a field goal in the final 2:47, and Holt hit four free throws down the stretch to bring the Flashes within 32-30 at halftime.
"I thought in the first half we showed a ton of jitters and really didn't play the way we've played since February," said Senderoff. "It actually reminded me of how we had played in early January when we weren't playing very well. I think Randal grabbled a bunch of guys (going into the locker room). Then, even though we didn't play great early (in the second half), their resolve and toughness I think over the (final) 20 minutes really carried us. I could not be prouder of these guys."
The Flashes fell behind 38-30 after Bulls sophomore forward Will Regan scored six straight points to start the second half, but eventually caught Buffalo at 47 after a 3-pointer by Holt with 11:48 to go. Neither team led by more than four points from that point on until KSU took a brief five-point advantage with 1:21 to play.
The Flashes heated up in the second half, shooting 56 percent from the field, but hit just 3-of-15 3-pointers on the night. They also forced just eight Buffalo turnovers, which was an emphasis entering the contest, but more than made up for that by winning the rebounding battle.
They'll be in for another war tonight as they attempt to continue their stunning late-season run at the expense of their arch-rival.
"We definitely got hot at the right time going into the MAC Tournament, and we're definitely building on our momentum game after game. But we 're definitely not satisfied," said Evans. "We want to get the games when they count the most, that's here at the MAC Tournament."